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upreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said
of pornography: “I couldnever succeed indefining it, but
I know it when I see it.” It is a position that works well
when everybody shares the same point of view. But when view-
points diverge, that positionbecomes untenable, at least as a basis
for punishing pornographers.
AFSA is growing increasingly concerned over the prolifer-
ation of rules applied to employees’ off-duty behavior that, on
the one hand, are deliberately vague and, on the other, are adju-
dicated with a degree of conservatism that seems at odds with
the views of a majority of FS members. One of these areas is
the off-duty use of socialmedia, such as blogging andFacebook.
According to AFSA’s latest survey, 15 percent of the 2,200
respondents either publish a blog or have a household mem-
ber who does so. Seventy-six percent use Facebook or other
social media at least once a week. One can assume that these
numberswill rise. State’s policies governing theuse of suchmedia
have not kept pace with these developments, and considerable
confusionappears to exist, bothwithinState and among FSblog-
gers, over the rules.
Issues have ranged froma regional security officerwho incor-
rectly asked all employees at post to report every foreignnation-
al Facebook friend, and an ongoing debate about FS bloggers’
first amendment and free speech rights, to various complaints
of career-related threats, often vague, directedby people of ques-
tionable authority toward publishers of blogs or their spouses.
The StateDepartment’s attitude toward theuseof socialmedia
for personal purposes appears tobe basedon three general ideas,
all of which are valid: that the government has a right to pro-
tect classified information; that the core FSmission canbe ham-
pered if employees embarrass themselves or the United States;
and that certain (and often apparently innocuous) disclosures
of information can potentially hurt both the security of indi-
viduals and national security. State’s policy can be found in the
ForeignAffairsManual at 5FAM792, whichalso references other
relevant sections.
Problems arise when these ideas are incompletely defined,
inconsistently applied or applied in ways that appear inconsis-
tent with 21st-century viewpoints and realities. They are com-
plicatedby the fact that thosewhowrite the rules for socialmedia
usage are not the ones who enforce them. Importantly, State’s
regulations address socialmedia as communication tools, where-
as social media users—and those who enforce the regulations
— view them as virtual venues for social interaction.
The most common area in dispute is not even mentioned
in the FAM sections dealing with social media. This is 3 FAM
4130, concerning conduct that could embarrass the government.
Cases arising within this realm often appear to be selected for
discipline haphazardly, and adjudicated by standards far more
common in the early part of the last century. Conduct that is
not notorious (neitherwidelyknownnor discussedas scandalous)
and not disgraceful by modern standards (such as describing
romantic encounters on Facebook) can be alleged to be both
notorious anddisgraceful in the case of an individual the depart-
ment seeks todiscipline, while ignored indozens of similar cases.
State, in consultation with AFSA, affinity groups and oth-
ers, should:
•More completelydefine and consolidate its regulations, both
in regard to personal behavior and to social media use. Rules
cannot be consistently applied if they are not specific.
• Dramatically enhance the efficiency and speed of its review
process for publications, or specifically exempt specific forms
of publishing (e.g., social media) from that process.
• Define the authorities responsible for social media moni-
toring and rule enforcement. People should know who does,
or does not, have the authority to censor their writing, both at
post and in the department.
• Apply policies consistently.
Where interpretation is key to enforcement —as in decid-
ing what constitutes disgraceful behavior — the rules should
either clearly describe the department’s interpretation, or offi-
cially designate a single body or office tomake the call. To pro-
mote decisionsmore reflective ofmodern viewpoints, that body
should consist of a diverse selection of FSmembers. (The pro-
priety of blog postings should be judged by people familiar with
our realities, and regularly rotatingFSmembers throughanoffice
or review panel reduces the risk of outdated viewpoints taking
These are my thoughts on this issue. What are yours?
AFSA’s advice for social media users can also be found on
the Web site at:
Internet Porn: Does State
Know It When It Sees It?
Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the AFSA State VP.
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