Miami Beach

Are politicians’ social media accounts public record? One man is suing to find out

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine

A social media kerfuffle between a local radio host and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine has turned into a legal dispute over what social media posts are deemed public under Florida’s sunshine laws.

Mortgage broker Grant Stern, a vocal critic of Levine, is suing the mayor and City Hall over access to the list of people Levine has blocked on his Facebook page and satellite radio broadcasts he’s done on Sirius/XM.

Stern, who is also a radio broadcaster, has filed suit in circuit court to force Levine to disclose the blocked Facebook accounts; audio recordings of “The Mayor,” a Sirius/XM show Levine hosts; and a month’s worth of Twitter posts (tweets).

The suit raises the question of whether an elected official’s posts to social media accounts — personal accounts where they publish official city business — count as public records under the state law.

If personal email accounts and cellphones of elected officials are subject to sunshine laws, then social media posts would also be public, according to Daniel Bevarly, interim executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

“If he’s discussing public business under that as the mayor, then those tweets would be public,” Bevarly said. “Same thing on the Facebook page, even if it’s a personal Facebook page.”

Bevarly said he wasn’t aware of any precedent regarding the disclosure of blocked accounts. And while he believes the Sirius/XM shows are public if Levine discusses official Miami Beach business on them, he’s not sure how a court might treat outtakes from those shows.

“It’ll be interesting to see if [Stern] gets that information,” he said.

According to a 2009 legal opinion from then-Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum regarding a question about an official Facebook page of the city of Coral Springs, posts on official municipal pages that deal with official city business are public records. The city of Miami Beach and its fire and police departments are very active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and they all routinely post information for residents regarding public works projects, traffic and public safety.

Levine has a Facebook page and Twitter account where he identifies himself as the mayor of the Beach and where he posts about official city business, links to news articles and political support for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Stern has criticized Levine over concerns that the city’s stormwater system is pumping polluted water into Biscayne Bay. In July, Stern responded to a tweet Levine sent out that includes him, Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, stating: @MayorLevine hope that @HillaryClinton @timkaine advised you to fix the #MiamiBeach water pollution problem you caused.” Stern said Levine then blocked him.

After that, Stern said he requested past tweets directly from Levine in a comment on the mayor’s Facebook page. Levine then deleted the comment and blocked Stern on that platform as well.

Stern then made formal records requests from City Hall. A city attorney responded that the block list and the Sirius/XM recording are not public records.

On Tuesday, Stern was confident he has a good chance at winning the suit.

“There’s no reason for them to deny us these records,” he said.

Levine declined to comment on the matter because of pending litigation. So did Aleksandr Boksner, senior assistant city attorney, who said City Hall had not been served with the lawsuit yet.

“The city of Miami Beach has not been served with the lawsuit, but irrespectively, does not provide comments on litigation that is actively pending,” he said in a statement.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech