Concerns raised over Charity Commission’s draft social media guidance

Concerns have been raised over charity leaders’ freedom of speech after the Charity Commission launched draft guidance on how trustees can “use social media appropriately and with confidence”.

The regulator’s draft guidance warns charities that the “fast pace” of social media “can increase the risk of posting content that is inappropriate”.

This includes a warning to trustees, charity workers and volunteers around their use of personal social media accounts saying that “sometimes there are risks that an individual’s posts are interpreted as reflecting those of a charity”. This includes content on an entirely personal account “that could reasonably be linked to the person’s role at the charity”.

The Commission says the guidance “is not intended to prevent general personal use of social media but to help make clear when the charity may have a legitimate concern as the employer”.

Freedom of speech concerns

But concerns have been raised over the guidance’s stifling of charity workers’ freedom of speech.

Rosamund McCarthy Etherington, a partner at Stone King LLP, said that the “draft policy encroaches into the private lives of trustees, staff members and employees and also raises fundamental issues in relation to protected philosophical beliefs under the Equality Act 2010 and Article 10 freedom of speech rights”.

Writing in a blog post she said that “If this guidance is not challenged, does it mean that all staff members, trustees and volunteers (regardless of seniority or role) will have to have two social media accounts - one for pure charity business and one for their personal views - particularly as the draft also says that posts need to be linked to the charity's objects”.

Other questions the guidance raises for charity worker and volunteers are “what is inappropriate content”, and whether that could be political or religious views, she said.

Question marks also remain over whether charity workers and volunteers need to “do a digital cleanse to start again”.

She adds: “Is this neutering civil society with an election in the next couple of years or sooner.”

The Charity Commission has launched a public consultation around the draft guidance. This runs for eight weeks and closes on Tuesday 14 March at 5pm. The final guidance is due to be published in the summer.

“Social media is a powerful communications and campaigning tool for charities, but it comes with its own risks,” said the regulator’s director of communications and policy Paul Latham.

“We know from our work that some trustees have limited oversight of their charities’ use of social media and can have limited understanding or confidence when it comes to digital channels.

“Whilst it is reasonable for trustees to delegate day-to-day operation of social media, as with other matters, we want to ensure they feel empowered to take charge of their charity’s approach by adopting a suitable social media policy, and know what to consider should issues arise.

“We appreciate that this can be tricky territory, and one where personal and professional lives and opinions can overlap, which is why we are consulting widely to make sure we get this right.”

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