The specter of a lawsuit by a civil rights group has forced some politicians and government officials to address a prickly question: Can they block their critics on social media?
It was sparked this week by the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which warned four government officials to stop “censoring their critics” by blocking access or deleting comments posted on their official Facebook pages.
The group targeted the sheriffs of Habersham and Worth counties, the Henry County Police Department and the office of U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson. But any court action would be closely watched across the state and could have implications in the highest reaches of Georgia officialdom.
After all, a slew of state leaders use social media as a principal way to communicate with the masses — and are known to keep an itchy finger on the “block” button.
That includes outgoing Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, whose penchant for blocking Twitter users has become a running joke in political circles. And Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican candidate for governor, has come under fire for deleting posts critical of him.
The ACLU’s letters to each government official includes images of posts that were removed or screen shots of users who were blocked from accessing their pages. Sean Young, the ACLU of Georgia’s legal director, gave each 30 days to restore “those who have been unlawfully blocked” or face a lawsuit.
“Georgia politicians need to be on notice that if they have an official government page, they can’t censor comments they don’t like,” Young said. “They should be encouraging more speech and not less. Because speech is central to our democracy, and we shouldn’t be discouraging comments critical of our government.”
He added: “Politicians need to catch up to the 21st century and get with the program.”
‘It will get worse’
Among the posts the ACLU targeted were comments that urged Ferguson to hold more town hall meetings or panned his votes in Congress, plus a series of comments on the Habersham page from members of a marijuana advocacy group criticizing drug-related arrests as a waste of taxpayer spending.
The letter to Henry County’s Police Department cited a recent Open Records Act request that revealed authorities had blocked at least 220 people from posting on the Facebook page. The Worth County site, the ACLU said, removed a post critical of the sheriff.
Ferguson’s office responded in a letter saying some accounts that were “inadvertently” blocked have been restored. He said it was not his intention to “silence the voices of my constituents,” and his office said his social media policy follows U.S. House rules and recent court rulings.
Several of the law enforcement departments declined to comment or did not directly address the legal threat, and it’s not immediately clear whether they all reversed their positions. Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell wrote on Facebook that he would “make some changes” to the account and expressed frustration about the legal threat in an email.
“Just shows where our country has gone,” he said, “and I’m afraid it will get worse.”
Fertile legal ground?
The ACLU’s attorneys cited a recent court order it said buoyed its position. That July ruling by a federal judge in Virginia concluded that a local politician committed a “cardinal sin under the First Amendment” by blocking a constituent on social media.
That’s provided more fuel for a volley of legal challenges. The ACLU of Maryland and ACLU of Maine are suing governors in each state over the practice. And the ACLU of Pennsylvania has pushed a local council member to stop deleting comments from critics.
Some politicians have taken pre-emptive action. In Arizona, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar unblocked a woman on Facebook who filed a lawsuit claiming he violated her free speech rights. She mounted a lengthy protest against him that involved depositing real blocks at his office.
And California Gov. Jerry Brown quit restricting people on social media after a free speech advocacy group released documents in September showing he blocked about 1,500 people from Facebook.
The most-watched case, however, involves the White House. President Donald Trump is facing a lawsuit from Twitter users blocked by him who say they were unlawfully restricted access to a public forum. The Justice Department warned a defeat could reshape First Amendment law and threaten how officials use social media.
In Georgia, several leading politicians have faced similar scrutiny of their social media accounts.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s office said about 150 accounts, largely deemed to be bots or spammers, were banned from accessing his Facebook page earlier this decade.
None have been blocked since October 2014, when Deal’s account was converted to a “fan page,” said his spokeswoman, Jen Talaber Ryan. Seven accounts have been blocked from his Twitter page, and all were deemed to be bots or spammers, she said.
“As a rule, Facebook followers are free to comment and post on the governor’s page unless it’s hateful or degrading language,” Ryan said.
Reed has built a Twitter following of more than 414,000 users — more than any other U.S. mayor, he often says, except for New York’s Bill de Blasio. He’s also aggressively blocked detractors on Twitter, including journalists, political analysts and others who have lobbed critiques about him.
His office said he uses the account as a “personal platform” and not an official one, though the distinction can be fuzzy: The @MayorKasimReed account has had no updates in more than six years while the mayor posts on the @KasimReed account several times a day.
“Like all Twitter users, Mayor Reed has the right to stop engaging in conversations when he determines they are unproductive, intentionally inflammatory, dishonest or misleading,” a Reed aide said.
Others take a different tack. Kemp is one of five top Republican candidates in the race to succeed Deal, and he often peppers his posts with incendiary comments aimed at revving up his conservative base, including recent critiques of “Hollywood liberals” taking aim at his campaign and “hyper-partisan politicians” in Washington blocking Trump’s agenda.
Sometimes he has deleted comments he didn’t like.
A spokesman said he makes no apologies for restricting “left-wing radicals” who target his social media feed.
“Hate-spewing trolls from around the country spend countless hours attacking Kemp, reciting debunked conspiracy theories and intimidating Georgia voters,” said the spokesman, Ryan Mahoney.
“It’s sad and these people are literally pathetic,” Mahoney said. “Our social media policy is simple: No foul language. No fake news. No trolls.”
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