Recently, we received a tip that there were some offensive racial comments posted by a Sandy City Councilman on his personal Facebook page. This Councilman was on the Sandy City Council when he posted these things and is currently running for reelection. The first thing we did, of course, was to verify that the posts in question were really on his page, particularly since they had originally been posted back in 2013. They were. We took screenshots in case they were deleted or edited. We then went about our work to be sure that this personal page belonged to the Steve Smith in question. We matched profile pictures to those used on the Sandy City election website and took other precautions to be sure that this was his page and these were his posts.
Once we had done that, we showed the posts to an assortment of people, inside and outside of our organization to be sure this wasn’t just a case of us “overreacting” to how we read the posts. The reactions were unanimous – mostly “wow.”
With that work behind us, we had to decide what to do about it. Since a core part of our mission is to hold public officials accountable, we felt it was our obligation in line with that mission to take action. After all, this is what we do. Remember former Attorney General John Swallow? Former Judge Johansen? Former City Councilman Jeff Haaga? If you follow ABU, you know this is a core piece of our work.
Our answer to that question came in parts. A petition asking Mr. Smith to recant. A “campaign” to make people aware of these posts – Facebook, Twitter, etc. A press release. An email to our followers.
What ensued was either fascinating or to be expected. Between the original Facebook post, and the subsequent posts about some of the media coverage (FOX13, KSL), there was a robust discussion about Mr. Smith’s words. For the most part, the discussion was very civil. Most seemed to think Mr. Smith’s words were inappropriate. A few came to his defense. Most importantly, it was a robust and honest public discussion.
When the initial post was published, Mr. Smith accused us of it being a “hit piece.” But he stuck by his words. No recanting, no apology. Oh, and he effectively accused us of censoring our page, saying he’d screenshot his reply in case we deleted it. Well, we didn’t. But he decided to edit his response. Funny.
Next he told us that his mission work in Zambia qualified him to speak in gross generalities about the Black community in the United States, and that we clearly didn’t have the necessary perspective. Interesting that he knows so much about the background of those of us at ABU. To his credit, he took on those who wanted to engage in a discussion. He wanted a forum for discussion and he got it. This was true public discourse – at least to the extent that in today’s environment, Facebook can be a platform for public discourse.
Later, Mr. Smith changed tactics and asked how we got these posts since he had deleted them over four years ago. And he asked us to reply publicly because, it seems, he was sure we were doing something unethical. Well, we took him up on it here. His posts, to this very moment, remain on his public personal timeline. Anyone is welcome to check them out. There was no trickery by ABU. We may, however, host a class on how to delete Facebook posts if that’s something our public officials need.
So this brings me back to these questions. Was this the right thing to do? Did we go about it the right way? Was this a “gotcha” moment – the kind of thing we are all so sick of in politics? Did we act properly, particularly because this came to us right before an election? Well, let me take a quick shot at these questions.
Was this the right thing to do?
I’m going to say yes. Part of our core mission is holding public officials accountable for their words and actions. We didn’t necessarily pass judgment on Mr. Smith: we provided a forum for the public to do that. Who knows, he may still be reelected by his constituents. But without question, we feel that this was the right thing to do. We are always researching, watching, and getting tips about, things our public officials are doing. This falls right in line with that work.
Did we go about it the right way?
Again, I’m going to say yes. Another option would have been to go to Mr. Smith more privately and ask him if he stands by these comments. If he had said no, it was a mistake, in the past, etc., perhaps we should then have let it go. But, again, he’s a public official and made these statements while holding public office. The posts remained publicly available on his personal Facebook page. There was no attempt by him to distance himself from the posts and, of course, once confronted, he doubled or tripled down and clearly stands by his statements. Using the resources available to us, we feel it is important to let his constituents know about this speech and let them make their own decisions.
Was this a “gotcha” moment – the kind of thing we are all so sick of in politics?
No. We don’t like “gotcha” moments any more than most. We’re not running for office, running a negative campaign, nor are we endorsing or challenging anyone for office. We’re about accountability and transparency. We didn’t take something out of his deep, dark past. These were publicly posted on his Facebook timeline and were not deleted. Nothing was taken out of context. We copied and linked to his full posts. Nothing was edited, altered or modified to trick Mr. Smith or a reader. We didn’t give him the forum to make these statements, he did that all by himself.
Did we act properly, particularly because this came to us right before an election?
This one is trickier because of the timing. Had we gotten this information six months earlier, we would have published it then. But we didn’t. We’re researching and getting tips all year long. This could easily look like electioneering and we’re not thrilled with that appearance but the fact is, these things were said and his constituents deserve to know it. We evaluate all tips that come our way, as well as our own original research, and if we find it’s worth publishing, we’ll do so. Our focus is on transparency and accountability. We don’t choose the timing of elections and we certainly don’t choose the candidates. So I believe we did the right thing once the information came to us and once we confirmed it in the way that we did.
I’ll take one more second to say this. We here at ABU work really hard at what we do. But make no mistake, we’re not perfect. Maybe we could have anticipated a question or outcome better than we did. Maybe we make an outright mistake – in the original Swallow complaint, one of the counts we raised turned about to be about a different John Swallow! We immediately apologized and dropped that count. In this situation, we panicked at the last minute that this wasn’t the same Steve Smith. Alas, it was. When we make mistakes, we want to hear about it and we will do our best to own those mistakes. But this time, we think we did the right thing and now you know a LOT more about how and why!
Thank you for your support.
Founder & Board Chair
Alliance for a Better Utah