Sheriff's car parked with the bay and Bay Bridge in the background
Photo courtesy of San Francisco Sheriff's Department.

The nascent Sheriff’s Department Oversight Board is considering a policy that would bar its civilian members from speaking to the media, raising alarms among free-speech advocates. 

The policy, proposed by board member Julie Soo, instructs volunteer board members not to comment to the press about issues that haven’t yet been voted on. This restriction applies to members’ personal social media accounts. The policy also includes vague references to “sensitive legal issues” and the possibility of comments being “misconstrued.” 

The proposal has not been received well by those who work to protect First Amendment rights and ensure transparency in government. 

“We do not want government censoring what we say before we say it,” said Chessie Thacher, an attorney in the Democracy & Civic Engagement program with the ACLU of Northern California. 

Thacher called the policy “concerning,” and feared it could serve as a “muzzle on board members.”

David Snyder, the head of the First Amendment Coalition, described the proposal as “a real problem” with “all the hallmarks of an unconstitutional prior restraint.” 

Prior restraint is a form of censorship in which a government or institution prevents free expression and speech. As written, Snyder said, the policy would likely be found to be in violation of the First Amendment in court. 

“In addition to being overreaching and preventing expression to the media,” Snyder said, the policy allows for members to talk to anyone — whether friends, family, the clerk at the grocery store — except the media. 

“The bottom line is that it’s preventing expression, and it’s doing so against a particular group of people,” Snyder said. “That also makes it suspect, constitutionally.” 

The policy’s vagueness, Snyder said, is another reason it could be found unconstitutional. 

Under the draft policy, board members are forbidden to “engage in social media discourse” where their “opinion may be misconstrued to represent the position of [the board] as a whole.” 

“That can be interpreted any number of ways, such that a member could be punished for speech, without really having an idea of what they can or cannot say,” Snyder said. 

This level of vagueness, Snyder said, “is going to chill speech.” 

Thacher, of the ACLU, agreed that the policy was “hard to follow,” and said she saw “a lot of red flags” in it. 

Thacher pointed to the line within the policy stating that, even after the board takes a vote, “any topics that touch on sensitive legal issues” will be referred to the City Attorney’s Office or the Sheriff’s Office Counsel. 

“Does that mean that the City Attorney has to vet anything you say?” Thacher asked. “That sentence, presumably, it could apply to anything — because anything could be a sensitive legal issue.” 

Soo, who drafted the media policy, said she had seen news articles “maligning” her and a fellow board member. “That, to me, brings dishonor to our entire board.”

Julie soo, board member

Asked whether such restrictions of civilian commissioners and city workers’ free speech is legal, City Attorney spokesperson Jen Kwart declined to speculate. “Any advice or analysis we may provide on that issue to clients would be confidential under attorney-client privilege,” Kwart said. 

Kwart also declined to comment specifically on the sheriff oversight board’s proposed policy. 

Several city departments instruct their members not to speak to the press, routing inquiries to a public information officer, but policies preventing civilian commissioners from speaking to the media are rare. 

The Police Commission, which is closest in function to the Sheriff’s Department Oversight Board, has no such policy that commissioners are aware of. 

Police commissioners speak with the media as they see fit, in support of or against different policies that come before them, most recently with a major new policy that will change how police can approach certain traffic stops

The Planning Commission, the Building Inspection Commission, and the Small Business Commission have no media or social-media policies. 

The bylaws for the Ethics Commission, which conducts audits, investigations and enforcement of city government ethics laws, designates the chairperson to serve as a media liaison. 

But ethics commissioners are still allowed to speak to the media, as long as they make clear that they do not speak on behalf of their fellow commissioners. 

The sheriff’s oversight board has spent the first several months of its existence deciding how to hire a chief investigator, with the debate on whether to use a professional search firm or save $10,000 and use city resources growing contentious. 

The yet-unhired chief will eventually build out an office to investigate misconduct claims at the Sheriff’s Department. After extended disagreement and indecision among board members, it was finally decided this month that the city’s Department of Human Resources would handle the recruitment process. 

Some members of the sheriff’s oversight board seem supportive of passing the new policy, which comes before them in March. At the board’s February meeting, members discussed coverage of their public meetings in the news. 

Soo, who drafted the media policy, said she had seen news articles “maligning” her and a fellow board member. “That, to me, brings dishonor to our entire board,” Soo said. 

Board member William Palmer agreed. “What is being written about us so far, and comments that are being made — it would behoove us to have a point person to make comments to the media,” Palmer said during the meeting. 

Soo suggested that Palmer be that point person. 

Board member Ovava Afuhaamango, in a text to Mission Local, said that while the nascent board is in its early stages, it could avoid “drama” through a more restrictive policy. 

“Our main focus is laying the foundation as quickly as possible with community input of course,” wrote Afuhaamango. “I was told this is standard (and I don’t know historical knowledge to challenge it).”  

Palmer, in a conversation with Mission Local, did not take issue with the proposed policy. “We want to make sure we’re a unified body,” Palmer told Mission Local. He noted that he was open to serving as the board’s designated liaison with the media. 

Having one designated spokesperson, Palmer told Mission Local, would be helpful, “so we can not be manipulated and divided.” Eventually, after the board hires its Inspector General, Palmer suggested that the policy could “loosen up a bit.” 

Soo, the author of the policy, did not respond to a request for comment. 

The policy discussion was pushed from the February meeting agenda, and will be heard at the next meeting on March 3. 

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. Campers,

    SFFD and SFGH are the two entities I trust in this town.

    The Commission is a Resume builder for mini Empire-Builders like Soo.

    Let’s see them at least shine the nose on Chief Sullivan’s Plaque outside the vacant Chief’s Residence on Bush.

    I was a firefighter for 5 years and abandoning the Hero Chief’s digs is a disgrace.

    If, for some reason I cannot figure, the last two Chiefs refuse to live there the department should at least put Firefighters from Tokyo there in a nascent Public Safety Personnel Exchange and we send some troops there.

    An International Exchange like that could be a real legacy and give the Commission something to work on that’s actually a good idea.

    Think of it … San Francisco International Relief Brigade

    We’d have people in Turkey and Syria now and they’d come here when our big one hits.

    David Lombardi predicts Boza will get 30 million with most deferred next year.

    Go Niners !!


  2. “Having one designated spokesperson, Palmer told Mission Local, would be helpful, “so we can not be manipulated and divided.” Eventually, after the board hires its Inspector General, Palmer suggested that the policy could “loosen up a bit.”

    Soo, the author of the policy, did not respond to a request for comment. ”

    GMAB if you are not able to be transparent and need to limit who members can speak to, you need a new job Mr. Palmer. And Ms Soo needs to grow some thicker skin if she wants in on this kind of duty.

  3. SMH that they can’t even get a leader or chief investigator in place in a timely manner even if only temporarily. Another useless commission with poor leadership. Such in fighting is ridiculous and embarrassing.

  4. This is ridiculous.

    The whole point of the (probably unnecessary) sheriff’s department oversight board is to protect felonious members of the public, because basically all the sheriff’s department does is run the jails.

    If there’s a problem in the jails, and the sheriff’s department isn’t addressing it, TELL US. That’s what you’re there for.

    Instead, the board wants to go all secretive, before doing anything at all. We should reconsider whether we want this board because it clearly doesn’t understand its mission.

  5. Always sucks when your attempt to stymie bad press results in bad press.

    Is it all ironic that board members are commenting to the press that they have no issue with a proposed policy that bans commenting to the press on proposed policies?

  6. Of course the proposed policy is vague and ambiguous on its face. As for Ms. Soo’s whining about being maligned along with her fellow board member, she can’t have her cake and eat it too. The board members are all public figures now. If they can’t stand the heat, they need to stay out of the kitchen.

  7. Julie Soo is like a anti-good government pro-corruption zombie that never seems to really die, and always manages to pop up from behind the furniture in the wrong places, always wanting to keep things secret.