Fri, Oct 19, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Facebook comments blur public-private line

By Yang Yung-nane 楊永年

There has been debate recently concerning comments about government policy, quite unrelated to his own duties, posted by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Deputy Director-General Shih Wen-yi (施文儀) on his Facebook page. In the populist and politicized discourse surrounding the issue, many people have lost sight of certain pertinent aspects, and it is to those that I now turn.

First, Facebook is not a private space: It has become something of the default modern forum for social interaction and discourse, and as such it is not entirely private in nature. Facebook falls somewhere between the private and the public domain, or perhaps one could say that, within modern life, Facebook is public to a certain degree.

Given this, Shih’s comments, having been reported in the press, have become a public issue. At least part of the reason for this is the sensitive nature of Shih’s position.

Second, it is not appropriate for government officials to publicly express their opinions about policy that are not related to their own duties. As Facebook is not an entirely private space, and Shih’s position as deputy director-general of the CDC is public in nature, it is common sense that it is not appropriate for an official in a public position to make “semi-public” comments about government policy unrelated to their own professional remit.

While one can concede Shih did nothing illegal here, he was nevertheless in clear violation of administrative ethics and disciplinary codes. If everyone agrees that this behavior was inappropriate, how such inappropriate behavior is to be dealt with can, and should be, addressed.

Third, controls over how such behavior is dealt with need to be put in place. At the moment the public is concerned mostly about whether the government would cause a “chilling effect” by disciplining Shih. That is, if it cracks down here, the fear is that it will discourage dissenting views. There are also concerns over whether such disciplinary action would run counter to the freedom of expression that is guaranteed by the Constitution. A reasonable interpretation of this would be that the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression primarily concerns the public and the press, and that certain restrictions do apply.

We cannot allow, for example, the freedom of expression to result in slander or the breakdown of social order. That is to say, if a certain type of behavior is deemed inappropriate, certain regulations ought to be put in place to lower the chances of such behavior occurring. We cannot simply allow concerns over the chilling effect or the freedom of expression to cloud our judgment as to what constitutes inappropriate behavior.

The point is perhaps not whether this behavior should be disciplined or not; the point is whether there should be rules in place to address it. Shih’s behavior was clearly inappropriate, but if the public becomes preoccupied with whether or not he should be disciplined for his actions, we will miss the opportunity to discuss establishing controls on ethical behavior for public servants.

Yang Yung-nane is a professor of political science and director of the Graduate Institute of Political Economy at National Cheng Kung University.

Translated by Paul Cooper

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