Basalt chamber raises ruckus by telling website posters to play nice | AspenTimes.com

Basalt chamber raises ruckus by telling website posters to play nice

Bennett Bramson became interim executive director of the Basalt Chamber of Commerce in April.

A funny thing happened when the new interim leader of the Basalt Chamber of Commerce called for civility in comments posted on a chamber-hosted Facebook page: an online fight broke out.

Interim Executive Director Bennett Bramson informed people posting comments on the Basalt Community Page last week that they needed to tone down the political rhetoric after several posts criticized the Town Council for voting to spend as much as $10,000 to study the purchase of the Pan and Fork property. His post emphasized, "This page IS NOT and WILL NOT become the vehicle for the political discourse and attacks."

"Please remove the political discourse and place it on your OWN page or one you create for that purpose," Bramson added.

He said Tuesday the chamber established the Basalt Community Page to share information on "positive" events and happenings that tourists and residents would find useful. It was seen as a way to help build business and for the "betterment of Basalt," he said, and the political bickering doesn't put Basalt's best foot forward.

While chamber officials view it within their rights to regulate the content posted to the sponsored site, Basalt resident Mary Kenyon and others sees it differently. A "community" website should welcome people to express their thoughts without someone arbitrarily deciding what is appropriate — as long as it avoids swearing, indecent pictures and such, she said.

"You want free flow of ideas," Kenyon said. "Who died and left him king?

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"Who's he to say you can only talk about 'happy'?"

Kenyon claimed the chamber's control of the site is censorship, which violates the First Amendment right to free speech and allegedly violates Facebook rules.

"The page says it is a community page — every taxpayer in the town of Basalt should have a voice and anyone who doesn't live there is entitled to an opinion," Kenyon wrote. "For one single, self-appointed individual to usurp the role of the entire electorate as a dictator is not only wrong, it is deceptive."

The chamber operates a separate Basalt Chamber of Commerce site where it can control what is posted, she noted. To set up a second site that purports to be for the community at large but is administered by the chamber violates Facebook rules, she contended. If it is a true community site, then the chamber cannot control the content, according to Kenyon.

Bramson countered that the chamber established the site, so it calls the shots.

"It was not intended to be a forum for vitriol, nastiness, abusive behavior, personal attacks, and 'alternative' facts, and IS NOT subject to the First Amendment as it is a privately run page, and is not paid for by the taxpayers," Bramson posted in an exchange with Kenyon.

Bramson said Tuesday he talked with the chamber's board of directors in advance about warning people to tone down the political rhetoric and he was given a green light to make a stand.

R.J. Gallagher, a member of the board, said he believes the site is working effectively. There are 2,300 followers.

"I see fresh faces on it every day," he said.

Gallagher said the site is a useful tool for Basalt, including the exchange of ideas on political issues. He doesn't see that major changes are needed.

"There's decorum that needs to be managed," he said. "Nobody is being censored. Nobody is being controlled."

So far, no comments have been removed, Bramson said. People can raise political issues and voice displeasure with the council as long as they maintain civility.

"We can agree to disagree without being disagreeable people," he said.

The Basalt Community Page became an outlet heavily used by critics of the council over the past two elections — during the campaign for mayor and three council seats in April 2016 and on a bond issue for the purchase of the Pan and Fork in November. People who raised alternative positions were regularly pounced upon by a group of between 10 to 20 posters. Basalt resident Mark Kwiecienski regularly sparred with the council critics on the site until he was booted for what was called unsubstantiated claims and personal attacks.

Former chamber CEO Robin Waters, who created and used to administer the site, wrote on the site Monday that her goal had been to keep posters "reasonably civil." She would contact people who wrote comments she thought were inappropriate and violated the rules, and asked them to self-edit. That had limited effectiveness.

"Calling people liars, telling elected officials to step down, claiming that there are 'special interests' driving decisions, and that people have hidden agendas isn't acceptable for this group; yet, again and again when passions inflame, these types of posts appear," Waters wrote.

She suggested that Basalt might best be served if a different group or page was created for political discourse. Kenyon and other organizers could set their own rules.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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