Public or private? Sabatini’s Facebook posts draw scrutiny

Eustis City Commissioner Anthony Sabatini

The Daily Commercial by Roxanne Brown

August 29, 2017

Eustis City Commissioner Anthony Sabatini, who recently caused a stir by offering Eustis as a home for unwanted Confederate monuments, now is drawing fire from some city residents for deleting their comments about the controversy from his Facebook page.

And experts in public records law say he could be in the wrong.

The post that sparked the debate and inspired hundreds of comments on Facebook was dated Aug. 17 and reads, “To any cities or counties that would like to donate their Confederate monuments to the City of Eustis, we will gladly accept and proudly display our nation’s history. Thank you.”

The city quickly posted a statement on its own official Facebook page distancing itself from Sabatini’s statement. But then people began complaining that the comments they posted in response to Sabatini’s statement were missing from his page.

One person wrote, “Very disappointed that my question was deleted without being answered. It was not asked rudely or offensively and I’ll be sure to take my dining dollars to Tavares in the future.”

Another said, “Why are comments disappearing? You made this public. You brought this to our attention. We won’t be silenced…”

A former teacher of Sabatini’s even asked that respect be shown to her by way of him not deleting her posts.

But Sabatini said he is only deleting comments that are patently offensive.

On Monday, Sabatini acknowledged he has deleted an unknown number of people and their comments from his Facebook page if they contained direct insults or strongly worded statements consisting mostly of curse words or name-calling.

“I prefer to have dissenting views on my wall and you see that over and over again on my page, but when they are saying something like ”(expletive) you Nazi” or lodging personal attacks, I don’t have to tolerate that,” he said.

On his Facebook page, he posted a warning: “Again, for the record, cursing, name-calling, purposefully misleading comments, threats and manufactured outrage, etc. will be removed from the page. Please be civil. Everyone here is seeking for a less divisive future: talking civilly leads to understanding. Thank you!” Sabatini posted on Aug. 18 in response to a question from someone about missing posts and a comment reminding him that the posts are from constituents voicing their opinions.

Sabatini has two Facebook pages — one titled “Anthony Sabatini” and another titled “Anthony Sabatini, Eustis City Commissioner Seat #2,” where the post originally appeared.

Sabatini believes both are personal Facebook pages and he can do as he pleases with them.

But Barbara Peterson, president of the Tallahassee-based Florida First Amendment Foundation, said Sabatini cannot pick and choose what to delete off any of his pages.

As a public official, any communication he makes or receives about city business is subject to Florida’s Public Records Law.

“If he’s got a page dedicated to himself but he’s speaking, and knowingly communicating and spreading information about the city or city business as a commissioner, those posts are subject to disclosure and to retention requirements,” Petersen said. “It’s not a matter of when it becomes a public record, it is a public record. You open yourself up whenever you have a Facebook page.”

Petersen said public records include emails, texts, letters and social media posts, whether from personal or official accounts.

Petersen said comments that are nasty, personal or offensive usually will be hidden but not deleted.

“Usually, cities have their own Facebook pages and commissioners can have their own too. But to say that a personal page is ‘not official’ is immaterial because if one is speaking to convey their opinion about the city or city business or trying to garner support on their position, what they say is public record,” Petersen said. [READ MORE]

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