By Charles Ornstein; ProPublica
As President Donald Trump faces criticism for blocking users on his Twitter account, people across the country say they, too, have been cut off by elected officials at all levels of government after voicing dissent on social media.
In Arizona, a disabled Army veteran grew so angry when her congressman blocked her and others from posting dissenting views on his Facebook page that she began delivering actual blocks to his office.
A central Texas congressman has barred so many constituents on Twitter that a local activist group has begun selling T-shirts complaining about it.
And in Kentucky, the Democratic Party is using a hashtag, #BevinBlocked, to track those who've been blocked on social media by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. (Most of the officials blocking constituents appear to be Republican.)
The growing combat over social media is igniting a new-age legal debate over whether losing this form of access to public officials violates constituents' First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Those who've been blocked say it's akin to being thrown out of a town hall meeting for holding up a protest sign.
On Tuesday, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University called upon Trump to unblock people who've disagreed with him or directed criticism at him or his family via the @realdonaldtrump account, which he used prior to becoming president and continues to use as his principal Twitter outlet.
“Though the architects of the Constitution surely didn't contemplate presidential Twitter accounts, they understood that the president must not be allowed to banish views from public discourse simply because he finds them objectionable,” Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute's executive director, said in a statement.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, but press secretary Sean Spicer said earlier Tuesday that statements the president makes on Twitter should be regarded as official statements.
Similar flare-ups have been playing out in state after state.
Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland called on Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, to stop deleting critical comments and barring people from commenting on his Facebook page. (The Washington Post reported that the governor had blocked 450 people as of February.)
Deborah Jeon, the ACLU's legal director, said Hogan and other elected officials are increasingly foregoing town hall meetings and instead relying on social media as their primary means of communication with constituents. “That's why it's so problematic,” she said. “If people are silenced in that medium,” they can't effectively interact with their elected representative.
The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment this week. After the letter, however, it reinstated six of the seven people specifically identified by the ACLU (it said it couldn't find the seventh). “While the ACLU should be focusing on much more important activities than monitoring the governor's Facebook page, we appreciated them identifying a handful of individuals — out of the over 1 million weekly viewers of the page — that may have been inadvertently denied access,” a spokeswoman for the governor told the Post.
Practically speaking, being blocked cuts off constituents from many forms of interacting with public officials. On Facebook, it means no posts, no likes and no questions or comments during live events on the page of the blocker. Even older posts that may not be offensive are taken down. On Twitter, being blocked prevents a user from seeing the other person's tweets on his or her timeline.
Moreover, while Twitter and Facebook themselves usually suspend account holders only temporarily for breaking rules, many elected officials don't have established policies for constituents who want to be reinstated. Sometimes a call is enough to reverse it, other times it's not.
Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law professor at the UCLA School of Law, said that for municipalities and public agencies, such as police departments, social media accounts would generally be considered “limited public forums” and therefore, should be open to all.
“Once they open it up to public comments, they can't then impose viewpoint-based restrictions on it,” he said, for instance allowing only supportive comments while deleting critical ones.
But legislators are different because they are people. Elected officials can have personal accounts, campaign accounts and officeholder accounts that may appear quite similar. On their personal and campaign accounts, there's little disagreement that officials can engage with — or block — whoever they want. Last month, for instance, ProPublica reported how Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., blocked users on his campaign account after they criticized his positions on health reform and other issues.
But what about their officeholder social media accounts?
The ACLU's Jeon says that they should be public if they use government resources, including staff time and office equipment to maintain the page. “Where that's the situation and taxpayer resources are going to it, then the full power of the First Amendment applies,” she said. “It doesn't matter if they're members of Congress or the governor or a local councilperson.”
Volokh of UCLA disagreed. He said that members of Congress are entitled to their own private speech, even on official pages. That's because each is one voice among many, as opposed to a governor or mayor. “It's clear that whatever my senator is, she's not the government. She is one person who is part of a legislative body,” he said. “She was elected because she has her own views and it makes sense that if she has a Twitter feed or a Facebook page, that may well be seen as not government speech but the voice of somebody who may be a government official.”
Volokh said he's inclined to see Trump's @realdonaldtrump account as a personal one, though other legal experts disagree.
“You could imagine actually some other president running this kind of account in a way that's very public minded — ‘I'm just going to express the views of the executive branch,'” he said. “The @realdonaldtrump account is very much, ‘I'm Donald Trump. I'm going to be expressing my views, and if you don't like it, too bad for you.' That sounds like private speech, even done by a government official on government property.”
It's possible the fight over the president's Twitter account will end up in court, as such disputes have across the country. Generally, in these situations, the people contesting the government's social media policies have reached settlements ending the questionable practices.
After being sued by the ACLU, three cities in Indiana agreed last year to change their policies by no longer blocking users or deleting comments.
In 2014, a federal judge ordered the City and County of Honolulu to pay $31,000 in attorney's fees to people who sued, contending that the Honolulu Police Department violated their constitutional rights by deleting their critical Facebook posts.
And San Diego County agreed to pay the attorney's fees of a gun parts dealer who sued after its Sheriff's Department deleted two Facebook posts that were critical of the sheriff and banned the dealer from commenting. The department took down its Facebook page after being sued and paid the dealer $20 as part of the settlement.
Angela Greben, a California paralegal, has spent the past two years gathering information about agencies and politicians that have blocked people on social media — Democrats and Republican alike — filing ethics complaints and even a lawsuit against the city of San Mateo, California, its mayor and police department. (They settled with her, giving her some of what she wanted.)
Greben has filed numerous public-records requests to agencies as varied as the Transportation Security Administration, the Seattle Police Department and the Connecticut Lottery seeking lists of people they block. She's posted the results online.
“It shouldn't be up to the elected official to decide who can tweet them and who can't,” she said. “Everybody deserves to be treated equally and fairly under the law.”
Even though she lives in California, Greben recently filed an ethics complaint against Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, who has been criticized for blocking not only constituents but also journalists who cover him. Reed has blocked Greben since 2015 when she tweeted about him … well, blocking people on Twitter. “He's notorious for blocking and muting people,” she said, meaning he can't see their tweets but they can still see his.
In a statement, a city spokeswoman defended the mayor, saying he's now among the top five most-followed mayors in the country. “Mayor Reed uses social media as a personal platform to engage directly with constituents and some journalists. … Like all Twitter users, Mayor Reed has the right to stop engaging in conversations when he determines they are unproductive, intentionally inflammatory, dishonest and/or misleading.”
Asked how many people he has blocked, she replied that the office doesn't keep such a list.
J'aime Morgaine, the Arizona veteran who delivered blocks to the office of Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican, said being blocked on Facebook matters because her representative no longer hosts in-person town hall meetings and has started to answer questions on Facebook Live. Now she can't ask questions or leave comments.
“I have lost and other people who have been blocked have lost our right to participate in the democratic process,” said Morgaine, leader of Indivisible Kingman, a group that opposes the president's agenda. “I am outraged that my congressman is blocking my voice and trampling upon my constitutional rights.”
Morgaine said the rules are not being applied equally. “They're not blocking everybody who's angry,” she said. “They're blocking the voices of dissent, and there's no process for getting unblocked. There's no appeals process. There's no accountability.”
A spokeswoman for Gosar defended his decision to block constituents but did not answer a question about how many have been blocked.
“Congressman Gosar's policy has been consistent since taking office in January 2010,” spokeswoman Kelly Roberson said in an email. “In short: ‘Users whose comments or posts consist of profanity, hate speech, personal attacks, homophobia or Islamophobia may be banned.'”
On his Facebook page, Gosar posts the policy that guides his actions. It says in part, “Users are banned to promote healthy, civil dialogue on this page but are welcome to contact Congressman Gosar using other methods,” including phone calls, emails and letters.
After this article was published, Gosar's office took issue with the claim that it blocks users who voice dissenting views, saying that Morgaine has acknowledged she may have used profanity. A review of other blocked users' tweets, however, appears to show more run-of-the-mill disagreement or criticism, some more polite than others.
Sometimes, users are blocked repeatedly.
Community volunteer Gayle Lacy was named 2015 Wacoan of the Year for her effort to have the site of mammoth fossils in Waco, Texas, designated a national monument. Lacy's latest fight has been with her congressman, Bill Flores, who was with her in the Oval Office when Obama designated the site a national monument in 2015. She has been blocked three times by Flores' congressional Twitter account and once by his campaign account. One of those blocks happened after she tweeted at him: “My father died in service for this country, but you are not representative of that country and neither is your dear leader.”
Lacy said she was able to get unblocked each time from Flores' congressional account by calling his office but remains blocked on the campaign one. “I don't know where to call,” she said. “I asked in his D.C. office who I needed to call and I was told that they don't have that information.”
Lacy and others said Flores blocks those who question him. Austin lawyer Matt Miller said he was blocked for asking when Flores would hold a town hall meeting. “It's totally inappropriate to block somebody, especially for asking a legitimate question of my elected representative,” Miller said.
In a statement, Flores spokesman Andre Castro said Flores makes his policies clear on Twitter and on Facebook. “We reserve the right to block users whose comments include profanity, name-calling, threats, personal attacks, constant harping, inappropriate or false accusations, or other inappropriate comments or material. As the Congressman likes to say — ‘If you would not say it to your grandmother, we will not allow it here.'”
Ricardo Guerrero, an Austin marketer who is one of the leaders of a local group opposed to Trump's agenda, said he has gotten unblocked by Flores twice but then was blocked again and “just kind of gave up.”
“He's creating an echo chamber of only the people that agree with him,” Guerrero said of Flores. “He's purposefully removing any semblance of debate or alternative ideas or ideas that challenge his own — and that seems completely undemocratic. That's the bigger issue in my mind.”
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