Congressman Wears Two Hats: Legislator and Citizen Journalist

Even elected officials can be citizen journalists.  The New York Times has an interesting report about Representative John Culberson (R) of Texas, who took on a role normally filled by CSPAN after the House had officially adjourned for its summer recess last Friday. When Republican representatives decided to hold what Culberson called a GOP "pep rally" on the House floor, Culberson, an outspoken advocate of using online tools to communicate with constituents, broke out his mobile phone and streamed live pictures using Twitter.  (He did not film the event, however, as doing so is not permitted on the House floor.)  After the speeches were over and the representatives moved to the hall for a press conference, Culberson used his phone to record videos of it, which he later posted to his Qik account.

Interestingly, Culberson's Twitter and Qik posts apparently violate regulations of the Committee on House Administration (CHA).  According to a letter Representative Michael Capuano (D) of Massachusetts sent to CHA in June, CHA's rules have been interpreted to prohibit representatives from posting any official communications on platforms outside of the House.gov domain, such as YouTube. Capuano's letter noted that some legislators find the House.gov sites a difficult and inefficient mechanism for posting video and encouraged CHA to loosen the rules to permit posting of official video content on approved House "channels" on external sites, so long as the content is properly marked and does not otherwise conflict with House rules.

Even more interestingly, Culberson somehow interpreted Capuano's letter as proposing tighter controls on House communications, which led to his accusing Capuano and the Democrats of trying to censor the use of Twitter.  Capuano responded in turn that his letter only addressed online video, and he correctly pointed out that he was pushing for looser rules.  Unsurprisingly, it all ended with an exchange of barbs and accusations between Republicans and Democrats.  The New York Times has a good summary on the political vitriol, while Aaron Brazell of TechnoSailor has an excellent post on the topic with greater detail and extensive documentation.

Given what Capuano's letter actually says, Culberson's accusations of censorship appear to be politically motivated, noted Mike Masnick of Techdirt:

It's really disappointing to see someone who had embraced the technology use it to try to whip up Twitter users into a frenzy, while misleading them to do so -- and then not using the tools to respond to actual criticisms. The problem here is that the existing rules for Reps [are] problematic. It's not this new effort to loosen the rules, other than in the fact that the loosening of the rules might not go far enough. That's not, as Culberson claims, an attempt to censor him on Twitter, but simply an attempt to loosen the rules with a focus on YouTube and (most likely) with an ignorance of the fact that Twitter even exists.

I agree with Masnick's take.  It's a shame that Culberson, who has commendably pushed for using new media to communicate with constituents, is playing politics with this issue.  There's no question that Capuano's letter is a positive step, not a negative one.  Culberson and Capuano both seem to want the same thing -- more freedom to post official communications online.  For Culberson to misinterpret Capuano's letter is disappointing, and it doesn't help the House to fix this problem.

(Arthur Bright is a second-year law student at the Boston University School of Law and a CMLP Legal Intern.)

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