Last month, the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee issued an opinion saying that judges may post comments and other materials on social networking sites, but they shouldn’t friend lawyers who may appear before them. The panel explained that the problem is the impression of influence. Friending a lawyer does not mean the person has actual influence over the judge, the opinion says, but the impression is there. The Legal Profession Blog noted the opinion, later picked up on the Wall Street Journal Law Blog. The WSJ Law blogger thought the ethics committee was too cautious. (Fl. JEAC Opinion 2009-20; Legal Profession Blog; WSJ Law Blog; ABA Journal.)
I'm inclined to agree with the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee. Judges should be beyond reproach when it comes to their independence and neutrality. Moreover, because these are also critical attributes for Ombuds, the same rule should apply to our field. Especially because the Ombuds profession is still developing, individual practitioners must carefully protect their reputation. Once an Ombuds is perceived as being conflicted or biased, they lose their effectiveness as an informal resource. Permitting visitors or potential visitors to become "friends" on a social network is a public demonstration of favoritism. Ombuds can and should continue to use new media to serve their constituents. However, they are well advised to avoid friend requests as a matter of policy.
Update 4/4/10: Ombudsman for Cape Code Times argues that journalists should not be 'friends' with people they cover. She also declines to friend editors and other journalists. (Cape Code Times.)