JANESVILLE — Rock County Public Health announced this week that it will no longer allow comments on its Facebook posts, part of a growing but controversial trend nationwide.

In a Facebook post Monday announcing the move, the agency wrote, “We have come to this decision due to ongoing social media discourse that does not align with our mission and values.”

“Moving forward, limiting the option to comment on our social media posts will allow us to focus on providing helpful information to the public in a healthy online environment,” they said.

Like everyone else, public agencies have to deal with not only criticism, but hateful comments and the spread of misinformation.

Public agencies across the country are making the same move.

In Delaware, the Wilmington Police Department no longer allows comments and in Florida, Alachua County turned their off in the wake of recent disclosures “about the algorithms used by social media to encourage hatred, conflict, misleading and false information, and dangerous behaviors, the county has decided to turn off the comment function on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts.” 

But free speech advocates say “not so fast.”

In 2019, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the interactive portion of a public official’s Facebook page is a “public forum,” so an official cannot block people from it because of the opinions they hold.

The case arose after the chair of a local board of supervisors in Virginia, Phyllis Randall, briefly blocked a critic from her official Facebook page and deleted a comment he made about her colleagues’ management of public funds.

It’s unclear how that affects an overall ban on comments.

In any case, both the Janesville Police Department and Rock County Sheriff’s Office continues to allow comments on their social media posts.

By Dan Plutchak

Dan Plutchak of Janesville is founder of the Janesville News Report