Monday, August 29, 2011

Those Vexing Links

Here is Alex Grant's latest opinion column "Those Vexing Links" that appeared in last week's edition (8/25/10) of the Longmeadow News (with permission of the author and thanks to the Longmeadow News).

A little over a year ago, the Select Board made a decision to deliver us from the perils of a volunteer-run town website and bring us to the promised land of a government-run town website.  Now that we are paying for what the prior webmaster was doing for free, how far has Longmeadow come?

On the supposedly big issue of "links" on the town website, the issue that provoked the hasty defrocking of Jim Moran as town webmaster, the answer is: backwards.  Before, there were links on the town website that were, you know, of interest to Longmeadow residents.  Now, they are gone.  Residents interested in the local Boy Scout troop, the Longmeadow Historical Society, the local running club, and community groups in town now can now go to Google if they know what to search for.  If they don't, residents can rely on the pre-internet methods of keeping an ear to the ground and scanning the bulletin board at Big Y.

In other words, the new government-run website is less useful than it used to be.  But then again, that's hardly a surprise.  In the amount of time Apple can engineer a new iPhone, the town of Longmeadow can start to consider how to deliberate on how to create a new content policy.  The Select Board and the Town Manager first saved the town from Mr. Moran's nefarious links and then spent several months forming a task force and having conversations about what the new website should look like.  

The ponderous process of deciding what content goes on the town website included the recent July 5, 2011 Select Board meeting at which the Town Manager presented a linking policy.  The current policy, which can be found on the town website, is wordy and murky.  The policy identifies certain types of websites which the town will not link to, such as those associated with political or advocacy groups or which promote religion, hate, pornography, or defamation.  (A little ironic that religion and pornography have equal footing).  Also verboten are links to individual home pages.

But that still leaves most of the internet.  The policy then turns to what the town website "may" link to.  Everything is done at the "discretion" of the town.  But whose discretion?  That was the nub of the issue last year when certain members of the Select Board decided that a 2.5 year old link to the Longmeadowbuzz blog became intolerable when Mr. Moran expressed an opinion on the blog about the new high school.  Mr. Moran used to decide on the links, which were among the myriad of decisions he had to make to keep the website current and operational.

According to the Town Manager's proposal, it would be the Select Board making the link by link decisions on organizations like the Newcomers Club.  It is clear that the bar is set pretty high for non-governmental sites: "In rare instances, links to websites that are not government-owned or government-sponsored if these websites provide government information and/or services in a way that is not available on an official government website."

The Town Manager would also have an organization wanting a link to submit an application.  Applicants would have to carefully peruse the 13 types of disqualifying factors, such as, "content that a reasonable citizen may not consider to maintain the dignity and decorum appropriate for Longmeadow website."

Wow.  On the one hand, our Select Board members will really earn their stipends as they engage in searching debates about the appropriateness of certain websites.  On the other hand, the linking policy will is so cumbersome that it diminishes the value of the town website.  Websites are constantly changing.  Will the Select Board have to revisit its linking decision every time an organization changes the content to its website?  Will someone be monitoring the linked sites to make sure they do not run afoul of the "appropriate dignity and decorum" the Select Board expects?

There is a much easier and cost-effective way of dealing with the links issue.  Let's just stipulate that a link does not imply endorsement by the town.  Let's also acknowledge that it will be a cold day in Hades when the benign civic organizations in our town, like the Historical Society, would put anything on a website that would be truly disreputable.  And let the webmaster make the day-to-day, common sense decisions on links as Mr. Moran did.

There's just one catch, and it is one that the Select Board created last year.  The Select Board made links a hot-button issue when it ousted Mr. Moran.  No future webmaster, whether a town employee or a volunteer, will dare to link to anything without explicit approval.  One wrong step is apt to be a firing offense.  That's not the way to create a dynamic community website in 2011, but it is apparently, the Longmeadow way.
Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow.  
His email address is .