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Salt Lake City - Politicians Blocking People On Social Media Ignites Debate

Published on: August 10, 2017 11:15 PM
By: AP
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Salt Lake City - An emerging debate about whether elected officials violate people’s free speech rights by blocking them on social media is spreading across the U.S. as groups sue or warn politicians to stop the practice.

The American Civil Liberties Union this week sued Maine Gov. Paul LePage and sent warning letters to Utah’s congressional delegation. It followed recent lawsuits against the governors of Maryland and Kentucky and President Donald Trump.

Trump’s frequent and often unorthodox use of Twitter and allegations he blocks people with dissenting views has raised questions about what elected officials can and cannot do on their official social media pages.

Politicians at all levels increasingly embrace social media to discuss government business, sometimes at the expense of traditional town halls or in-person meetings.

“People turn to social media because they see their elected officials as being available there and they’re hungry for opportunities to express their opinions and share feedback,” said Anna Thomas, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Utah. “That includes people who disagree with public officials.”

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Most of the officials targeted so far — all Republicans — say they are not violating free speech but policing social media pages to get rid of people who post hateful, violent, obscene or abusive messages.

A spokeswoman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called the Aug. 1 lawsuit against him “frivolous” and said his office has a clear policy and will “remove all hateful and violent content” and “coordinated spam attacks.”

The ACLU accused Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin of blocking more than 600 people on Facebook and Twitter. His office said he blocks people who post “obscene and abusive language or images, or repeated off-topic comments and spam.”

Spokesmen for Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Mia Love, who were singled out by the ACLU, said people are rarely blocked and only after they have violated rules posted on their Facebook pages to prevent profanity, vulgarity, personal insults or obscene comments.

“We are under no obligation to allow Senator Hatch’s Facebook page to be used as a platform for offensive content or misinformation,” spokesman Matt Whitlock said.

Katie Fallow, senior staff attorney at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, which sued Trump last month, said there’s no coordinated national effort to target Republicans. The goal is to establish that all elected officials — no matter the party — must stop blocking people on social media.

“If it’s mainly used to speak to and hear from constituents, that’s a public forum and you can’t pick and choose who you hear from,” Fallow said.

Rob Anderson, chairman of Utah’s Republican Party, scoffed at the notion that politicians are violating free-speech rights by weeding out people who post abusive content.

“You own your Facebook page and if you want to block somebody or hide somebody, that’s up to you,” Anderson said. “Why else is there a tab that says hide or block?”

Court decisions about how elected officials can and cannot use their accounts are still lacking in this new legal battleground, but rules for public forums side with free-speech advocates, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California-Berkeley Law School.

For instance, lower court rulings say the government can’t deny credentials to journalists because their reporting is critical, he said.

“These are government officials communicating about government business. They can’t pick or choose based on who they like or who likes them,” Chemerinsky said.

But public officials may be able to legally defend the way they police their social media pages if they prove their decisions are applied evenly.

“It’s got to content-neutral,” Chemerinsky said.

Trump’s use of social media and the Supreme Court’s decision in June striking down a North Carolina law that barred convicted sex offenders from social media is driving the increased attention to the issue, said Amanda Shanor, a fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.

“More and more of our political discussion is happening online,” Shanor said. “It’s more important that we know what these rules are.”



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Read Comments (7)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Aug 11, 2017 at 09:48 AM georgeg Says:

> “If it’s mainly used to speak to and hear from constituents, that’s a public forum and you can’t pick and choose who you hear from,” Fallow said.

Demonstrably not true. In the "old fashioned" physical public forum, there were limits based on physical safety (room to escape in case of an emergency etc.) and simple public order (disrupters were kicked out).

2

 Aug 11, 2017 at 11:12 AM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #1  
georgeg Says:

> “If it’s mainly used to speak to and hear from constituents, that’s a public forum and you can’t pick and choose who you hear from,” Fallow said.

Demonstrably not true. In the "old fashioned" physical public forum, there were limits based on physical safety (room to escape in case of an emergency etc.) and simple public order (disrupters were kicked out).

How are those criteria relevant?

3

 Aug 11, 2017 at 11:51 AM Educated Archy Says:

Its Trumps page and he can do whatever he wants. If you don't like it open your own page.

4

 Aug 11, 2017 at 01:10 PM georgeg Says:

Reply to #2  
Anonymous Says:

How are those criteria relevant?

Because in order for any public forum to have meaning, there must be proper decorum, and the one deciding on the decorum is the one who hold the public forum. Thus if I want my website (or the governor wants his "web site" or facebook page) to be accessible to the widest possible relevant audience, the decision of what makes that possible, what decorum is required, is up to the account in question. I can decide, for example, that using the word Christian is not allowed because those of other faiths may not want to read a web site (or a facebook page or whatever) with that word on it. It is my evaluation and decision, like it or not, and anyone violating the are banned. The commentators do not get to choose the topic. The account in question gets to choose the topic, and if I want the topic to be spiders, only spiders, and nothing but spiders I can ban anyone who violates that rule by talking about something else. No reason the governor cannot impose his conditions of decorum to keep things "on topic" and unoffensive to the audience.

Because unlike the limited audience of a physical forum, it may well be necessary to limit offensive material even more to gain audience.

5

 Aug 11, 2017 at 01:20 PM georgeg Says:

Reply to #2  
Anonymous Says:

How are those criteria relevant?

Thus while it may be possible to say in a physical forum there is space for a 100 people so take notice of the offensive words expected to be thrown around and stay out if you are if you will feel offended, this is not the same in internet situation. In the physical situation 300 million other Americans are already excluded anyway, so there is very little specific "you" are personally excluded for being sensitive. In the internet forum its nature makes it possible for all 300 million people to access, but if I cannot because of its offensive nature, then I personally have been picked on to be excluded. It cannot be allowed that the offensive commentators rule over 300 million others.

6

 Aug 11, 2017 at 01:41 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #3  
Educated Archy Says:

Its Trumps page and he can do whatever he wants. If you don't like it open your own page.

Trump as two Twitter accounts, one official (@POTUS) and one personal (@realDonaldTrump). The former is public, and he shouldn't block anyone (not sure he does). The latter is his, and he can do as he wants, as you say.

7

 Aug 11, 2017 at 04:09 PM Educated Archy Says:

Whats makes an @potus a public page?

8

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