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Social media post getting public officials in trouble

A high-ranking state official is in hot water over a recent posting she made on Facebook, illustrating the tightrope public officials must walk while using the relatively new technology.

Ohio School Board President Debe Terhar drew fire last week after she re-published on her personal Facebook page a friend’s picture that seemed to equate gun control efforts with the views of Adolf Hitler. Although Terhar made the post on her private account visible only to her friends, someone captured an image of the post and leaked it publicly.

Ohio Democrats have since called on Terhar, a Cincinnati-area Republican, to resign, while a prominent Jewish group called the metaphor offensive.

In another recent case, Todd Snichtler, a former Republican state lawmaker and chairman of the bi-partisan Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, was criticized earlier this month for frequently sharing articles skeptical of green energy projects and climate change on his personal Twitter account. Snitchler’s posts were reported earlier this month, shortly after a vote from PUCO to reject a funding plan for a American Electric Power solar project near Zanesville.

Both cases to differing degrees show how politicians can forget their online postings are visible to everyone, and not just people who agree with them, said Dan Birdsong, a political scientist at the University of Dayton.

“Being a public servant isn’t just preaching to the choir of your party, but to serve the greater public interest,” Birdsong said.

Mark Weaver is a Columbus-based Republican political consultant who offers social media training for public officials. He advises his clients to be aware of the “headline effect” when they post things online, he said.

“The safest way for a public official to engage on social media is to imagine each update being printed on the front page of the newspaper,” Weaver said. “If this is not something you’re comfortable saying on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper, as a public official, you probably shouldn’t post it on a social media outlet.”

Terhar did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and has since taken down her Facebook account. But in an email to colleagues late last week, she said she regretted “not using better judgment with the posting on my Facebook page.”

“I did not compare our President to Adolf Hitler. Like millions of Facebook users, I simply shared a photograph on Facebook posted by another person. I regret the consequences of carelessly sharing that picture and I will be more selective in my use of social media in the future. I am committed to improving the quality of education for Ohio’s children and will continue to work tirelessly to achieve that goal,” Terhar wrote.

Democrats have called on Ohio Gov. John Kasich to push for Terhar’s ouster over the photo. State Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern referred to the incident in a fundraising solicitation late last week.

Kasich isn’t going to take any action, said spokesman Rob Nichols.

“She’s admitted it was a mistake and she’s apologized for it,” Nichols said. “It’s an independent board and because she was elected by the voters, she’s accountable to the voters.”

State Education Board Member Jeffrey Mims, a Dayton Democrat who represents Butler, Miami, Montgomery counties and part of Darke County, said he found it unsettling that Terhar shared the photo. He personally supports some gun control efforts, and said he thinks Terhar’s post represents a view on gun control that is outside of the mainstream.

“In Ohio, you have citizens who have a diverse set of priorities and goals. And where that sentiment may be suitable for some, it’s very, very extreme for others,” Mims said. “I think sometimes we in public life have a responsibility of at least trying not to draw attention to yourself on extreme positions and matters.”

Mims is running this year for the Dayton City Commission.

The website that apparently originally published the Hitler photo Terhar shared also contained racially-charged pictures. One showed a marquee calling Democratic President Barack Obama a “lying African.”

Mims, who is black, said he talked to Terhar, who is white, about the post and the other pictures. He doesn’t believe she holds racist views, but said the pictures upset him, and he’s concerned about the perceptions of prospective school board employees, he said.

Birdsong, the political scientist, said politicians were called out for saying stupid things before the Internet age. But with social media, posts or recorded comments can be quickly shared and preserved forever.

Terhar is not the first Ohio elected official to invoke Hitler’s name to make a political point. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, did the same in 2011, describing Hitler, Josef Stalin’s and former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s opposition to independent unions while on the Senate floor during debate about collective bargaining legislation. He later apologized.

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