Ohio’s State Board of Education President Debe Terhar, Social Media and the Public

I’ve been thinking on this situation for three days now and I’ve had many, many thoughts. (Basic recap: Ohio’s State Board of Ed prez, Debe Terhar, shared on her Facebook page a photo of Hitler that is accompanied by this quote, “Never forget what this tyrant said: ‘To conquer a nation, first disarm its citizens.’ — Adolf Hitler.” This quote has been debunked. Since its posting a few days ago, she’s taken down her Facebook page but is refusing to step down from the board or from the position of president of the board.)

Here are a few thoughts:

1. I work on a daily basis to get public officials to engage with, you know, the public. I don’t want less engagement between those two sets of stakeholders. I’m also an elected official, so I live this as well.

2. Engagement, like democracy, can be dangerous for public officials who do not comprehend that online engagement in particular wants to be public and, like heat seeking the highest points, engagement seeks out public forums.

4. I’m in my ninth year of engaging online and I trust its self-correcting nature, for me and for others. It’s why I don’t demonize it. But it requires humility and acceptance as well as confidence to stand up for what you’ve placed online, however you placed it there (including your original words or *just* sharing a photo or quote from another source, which then is open to being scrutinized, for that’s part of what social networking is all about – scrutinizing the networks of people or organizations we view online in order to understand the otherwise one-dimensional representations of themselves that they’ve placed online with their name attached to or affiliated with it) or apologize for it and explain yourself. If you are not prepared to do any of that, then get training before you engage online. If you are not capable of or don’t agree in doing any of that, please do not enter public office. Public office in the 21st century demands people who accept the public part and the public part, in the 21st century, includes the online public.

Now, here’s a little free advice – I won’t charge you what crisis communications folks would: if, like Debe Terhar, you are someone who holds a public position like hers – the nominal and actual leader of Ohio’s State Board of Education – then the threshold for your online conduct is going to be high. It should be high. This is why many state level agencies have communications departments as well as lawyers, and why they should have social media policies and social media bootcamps for all level employees, tailored to what each level of employee needs.

Debe Terhar’s apology to Governor Kasich (though it’s not exactly clear how it was communicated) and others to whom she reportedly sent an email Tuesday evening only covers her failures in knowing about and understanding how being a public official works when you’re in online spaces. Here’s what she reportedly has said (bold is mine):

“Again, I truly regret not using better judgment with the posting on my personal Facebook page,” she said in the e-mail. “The last thing I would ever want to do is embarrass the State Board of Education or compromise the important work we are doing.” She asked board members to contact her directly with any concerns.

Terhar also attached the statement that she’d made earlier to the media, in which she said “I regret the consequences of carelessly sharing that picture and I will be more selective in my use of social media in the future.”

Other news reports include quotes from Ms. Terhar in which she says that by sharing that photo on her Facebook page, she wasn’t intending to compare President Obama and his ideas on gun ownership, gun rights, gun control and the Second Amendment to Adolph Hitler and the (inaccurate) quote in the photo she posted, but rather she wanted to make people think.

And you see, here’s that other thing you have to know when you’re a public official on social media: people certainly are going to think and you cannot control what they’re going to think and you are going to have to accept that and understand your options for how to respond to how people are now thinking about what you say you wanted them to think about, all the while remembering that what you say you wanted people to think about? Yeah – that just doesn’t always happen in a one-dimensional medium and you, the person who posted, and the person in the public position? You have to be prepared for that.

For being thoughtless about the consequences of sharing what she shared (as well as for believing that her page was *private*), I forgive Debe Terhar.

But for Ms. Terhar to suggest that I be so naive as to think that a person who is supposedly qualified to be president of the State Board of Education didn’t know the range of ways in which people might think about the Hitler photo and quote she shared? She should at least step down from being president of the board.

Why? Because as a parent with two kids still in the Ohio public school system, we can do better and we have to do better than having a person at the top of our State Board of Education who either grossly lacks an understanding of our kids’ most common tools of communication and can’t use them properly (and then removes everything she wrote? I’ve run for office and my entire blog is still up), or, as the Anti-Defamation League writes (they’ve asked her to apologize), fails to see the outright inappropriateness in even providing content that suggests a comparison between our president and Hitler:

“Whatever one’s position on the gun control issue, analogies – whether direct or implied — to Hitler and the Holocaust have absolutely no place in the debate over gun control,” said Martin H. Belsky, ADL Cleveland Board Chair, and Nina Sundell, ADL Regional Director.  “While one can disagree with the Obama Administration’s position on gun control, comparisons of his proposals to Hitler’s trivialize the memory of the six million Jews and the millions of other who perished in the Holocaust and are deeply offensive to Holocaust survivors.

“Clearly Ms. Terhar needs an education about the history of the Holocaust,” added Mr. Belsky and Ms. Sundell.  “As a public figure she should know better.  We hope that Ms. Terhar will retract the comparison and apologize.  She should make clear that Holocaust comparisons are inappropriate and a terrible distortion of the history of World War II.”

Frankly, if Ms. Terhar were a police officer and sent something like this around in her email to fellow officers, she’d very possibly be required to attend sensitivity training – something I actually think she should consider.

So what photo did I share on Facebook when I wanted to get people thinking about these issues? This one:


Before Ms. Terhar says or does another thing related to our kids’ education, she needs to say and do something, to and with the public, all of us, about this incident beyond addressing her lack of judgement about sharing on Facebook and her intention to get people thinking about the Second Amendment and history (as if we’re not doing that anyway and without such provocation). And there are some very good suggestions in this post about what those words and actions might be.

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