Guidelines for Electronic Communication by Parishes and Schools

June 2011

Electronic communication tools have become extremely important means for parishes and schools to communicate with their parishioners, students, parents and the general public.

While these tools are fun and exciting to use, it is important to remember that they belong to parishes and schools, and not to the individuals that may monitor and maintain them. Just like the content of a bulletin or newsletter, the messages delivered through electronic communication tools come from the parishes and schools. Consequently, parishes and schools are responsible for these messages.

We suggest you keep the following guidelines in mind as you develop and use these tools in your various ministries and operations:

Ownership and Access of Tools for Electronic Communication

Parishes and schools use a variety of web-based tools to communicate. These tools include, but are not limited to, websites, content-sharing sites (e.g., YouTube), social networking sites (e.g., Facebook), blogs and micro-blogs (e.g., Twitter), and other social media sites.

A parish or school must be sure it is aware of and approves of the creation and use of any communication tools that employees or volunteers would like to create in connection with their work.

Additionally, the parish or school must “own” the website, content-sharing site/account, social networking account, blog or other social media site/account.

  • In the case of a website, this means that the domain name must be registered to the parish or school, and not to any individual employee or volunteer.
  • In the case of a social networking account, blog or other social media account, this means that the account is registered to the parish or school, or to a specific position (e.g., director of youth ministry) within the parish or school, and that login and password information is known to or accessible by the pastor or principal and two other employees.

Maintenance of Tools for Electronic Communication

A parish or school should monitor the content of any websites, content sharing sites/accounts, social networking accounts, blogs or other social media sites/accounts to be sure they do not contain any inappropriate material. Inappropriate material is content that is confidential, proprietary, pornographic, threatening, discriminatory, defamatory, disparaging, or copyright-protected.

While various employees and volunteers may work with or use these tools, it is a good practice to designate one person at the parish or school to review all content and remove inappropriate content from any and all officially authorized electronic communication tools.

Remember, parishes and schools are not obligated to host forums for public discussion on parish or school-owned tools for electronic communication. The person responsible for monitoring these tools can and should remove objectionable content.

  • Post “terms of use” on your sites or pages explaining that the administrator (i.e., the individual responsible for posting and monitoring content) has the right to remove content for any reason.
  • Give examples of content that may be removed (e.g., content that is obscene, defamatory, unrelated to discussion threads, etc.).

If parish or school tools offer “contact us” or comment-posting features, the parish or school should determine who will have the authority and responsibility to respond on behalf of the organization. 

Posting Photos, Video, and Recordings

Remember, if pictures or audio/video recordings are going to be posted online, the parish or school must make sure that it has obtained proper permission (i.e., written releases) before posting. Similarly, if identifying information about persons is to be posted, the parish or school should receive written permission from such persons before the information can be posted.

Employees and volunteers should not be permitted to post a recording of anything connected to their duties as employees or volunteers unless the parish or school has given permission for the posting and has obtained the appropriate releases.

  • This rule is applicable to a wide variety of situations including, but not limited to, the following: coaches who want to post game footage; music ministers who want to post their performances at a mass or other church celebration; teachers, youth ministers or catechists who want to post footage from field trips, meetings or other events; or a sacristan who wants to post the priest’s homily from the past weekend’s mass. 

To the extent parishes and schools can control advertising featured on officially-authorized tools for electronic communication, good judgment should be used in selecting advertisers and approving advertisements.  

Respecting Copyright in a Digital World

Copyright laws impact parishes’ and schools’ use of tools for electronic communication. Please remember… just because content is available on the Internet does not mean that the content can be freely used for any purpose.

  • Therefore, do not post any non-original content (e.g., photographs, artwork, articles, etc.) unless and until you have obtained written permission from the copyright owner to do so.  
  • This guideline also extends to posting videos or recordings of masses or other events that contain performances of copyrighted music or other copyrighted material.
  • If you have any questions about whether something is protected by copyright, please contact the Office of Legal Services.

Responding to Negative Comments Posted on Third Party Sites

The development of collaborative web applications, like social networking sites, has created new forums for sharing information. While this is a positive development in many respects, it has also created a virtual soapbox from which individuals can air their grievances.  Students and adults may want to vent frustration, post complaints or poke fun at parishes, schools, agencies, staff, students or programs online. In some cases, these communications can rise to the level of threats or bullying.

A common response is to demand that the comment(s) be removed and to take action against the person(s) posting it. However, parishes and schools have very limited control over unfavorable content posted on third-party websites or social networking sites.

  • A specific site’s terms of use dictate what material the site owner will remove and what will remain posted to the site.
  • Often, third-party sites will only remove content that violates the law. This includes content that is defamatory, bullying, or violates intellectual property rights. 
  • If the individual posting the content is a parishioner or school parent, it may be more effective to ask that individual to personally remove the content.
  • Please keep in mind that removal of the unfavorable content is often the most desirable outcome. 

In the case of students, the extent to which disciplinary action can and should be taken will depend on the content of the information that has been posted online. Distinctions need to be made between content that is threatening, bullying or otherwise harmful to the student or others, and content that is negative but not otherwise harmful. In all cases, before taking disciplinary action, a school should consult with the Office of Catholic Schools for guidance on how to handle the situation.

If you have any questions or would like to provide feedback, please contact the Office of Legal Services:

Maureen Murphy
mmurphy@archchicago.org
(312) 534-8303