Can public officials block citizens on social media or is it a violation of their constitutional rights?Leave a comment
September 13, 2017 by Paul Dughi
Here’s an interesting debate: If you’re a public official, should you have the right to block people from your social media page?
Kentucky Governor Sued
In Kentucky, the ACLU there filed suit on behalf of some 600 users that have been blocked, claiming it violates their rights to free speech. “I was surprised when Governor (Matt) Bevin blocked my access to his Twitter page, particularly because of how many times he has asked Kentuckians to follow his social media pages to hear about his ideas and policies directly from him,” said Drew Morgan
“The First Amendment does not allow the government to exclude speakers from a public forum because it disagrees with their viewpoint.” — ACLU of Kentucky Legal Director William Sharp
Maryland Governor Sued
The ACLU is also going after Maryland Governor Larry Hogan for blocking people.
“As the Supreme Court ruled in June, and a federal judge in Virginia echoed just last week, social media has become a vital means for constituents to communicate with their elected officials,” said Maryland ACLU legal director Deborah Jeon.
“It violates both the First Amendment and Maryland’s own social media guidelines for government officials to block out any voices of dissent or those simply raising questions about positions taken by public officials sworn to serve,” Jeon said.
Maine Governor Sued
In Maine, Governor Paul LePage has described his Facebook account a “political page.” LePage, along with other politicians, have at times taken directly to social media to release official information, including live news conferences.
The lawsuit against LePage claims blocking residents in unconstitutional.
“Social media has quickly become a crucial tool for constituents to express their opinions to public officials. Free speech must be protected from government censorship on Facebook just as is it in any other public forum.” — Meagan Sway, ACLU of Maine via Boston.com
ACLU warns Utah congressional delegation
The ACLU in Utah has sent letters to all of the state’s congressional reps warning them about legal repercussions for blocking citizens.
“Because your social media pages are a public forum, your blocking of these individuals is an unconstitutional restriction on their right to free speech under the First Amendment.” — ACLU of Utah
“We hope this information helps our elected officials stay on the right side of the First Amendment, when it comes to communicating with the public and their constituents,” said Leah Farrell, ACLU of Utah Staff Attorney. “Social media is a great way to facilitate public discussion, but those discussions need to include everyone, even people who don’t agree with their representatives.”
President Trump sued
President Trump has been sued by Twitter users claiming their constitutional rights have been violated because Trump block them. The suit says the Trump’s social media use constitutes a public forum as he regularly releases official information.
“The @realDonaldTrump account is a kind of digital town hall in which the president and his aides use the tweet function to communicate news and information to the public, and members of the public use the reply function to respond to the president and his aides and exchange views with one another.” — Lawsuit filed against Pres. Trump
It’s a complex issue, though
· Is a personal social media account considered an “official” voice of the government?
· Should public officials be allowed to block people that offend them?
· Do public officials have to put up with trolls and people that attack them on their “personal” accounts?
· If the accounts are used to communicate publically, or present official information, does that indeed make them a public forum?
We’ve seen some of the horrible things people post on our company’s Facebook page in response to news articles. Some of it is the most vile, offensive things you’ll ever read. We delete the comments and block the users if they don’t calm down. But we’re a private company. Do public officials have that same right?
Little legal guidance
The law hasn’t kept up with a lot of emerging technology. There’s not a lot of legal guidance on the issue. The closest precedent I could find was a recently federal court ruling against a county supervisor in Virginia — Davidson v. Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. When Supervisor Phyllis Randall used Facebook and asked for Loudon citizens to comment on any “issues, request, criticism, compliment, or just your thoughts,” Brian Davidson decided to post comments. They weren’t flattering. He accused the county school board of corruption. Randall deleted the post and the comments. Davison alleged a violation of his free speech rights.
A federal judge agreed. District Judge James Cacheris said in his court decision that Supervisor Randall had blocked Davidson because she was “offended by his criticism” of her colleagues. By doing so, the judge said she “engage in viewpoint discrimination” which is prohibited under the First Amendment.
“… the suppression of critical commentary regarding elected officials is the quintessential form of viewpoint discrimination against which the First Amendment guards. By prohibiting Plaintiff from participating in her online forum because she took offense at his claim that her colleagues in the County government had acted unethically, Defendant committed a cardinal sin under the First Amendment.” — Judge Cacheris in Davidson v. Loudoun Country Board of Supervisors
The judge continued: “The Court cannot treat a First Amendment violation in this vital, developing forum differently than it would elsewhere simply because technology has made it easier to find alternative channels through which to disseminate one’s message.”