Don’t Block Me
Our Founding Fathers could be mean. John Adams called Alexander Hamilton the “bastard brat of a Scottish peddler,” and claimed Thomas Jefferson’s soul was “poisoned with ambition.” Adams’ enemies retaliated by calling him a “blind, bald, crippled toothless man.”
Political debates today can be just as heated, causing some elected leaders to block constituents who post critical views from accessing their Facebook or Twitter accounts. However, the ACLU of Utah believes that official social media platforms for elected leaders and government organizations are public forums, and that blocking individuals is an unconstitutional restriction on their right to free speech. As more lawsuits over social media blocking by elected officials are filed across the country, more judges are increasingly seeing it the same way.
In April, the Governor of Maryland settled a lawsuit filed by the ACLU after his office blocked several constituents for posting critical comments. More recently, a federal judge in Maine allowed an ACLU lawsuit to continue against that state’s governor for blocking constituents—finding that social media censorship violated free speech rights.
These rulings even apply to the nation’s highest political office: In May, a federal judge in New York ruled that President Trump infringed on the First Amendment by blocking constituents who posted unflattering comments on his Twitter feed.
Every week the ACLU of Utah receives complaints from constituents blocked by Utah elected officials or governmental organizations. Our intake teams takes these complaints seriously and asks constituents to send us screenshots of their blocked status. We explain that First Amendment rights apply to social media platforms operated by elected officials, official boards, organizations, agencies, commissions, or any other officially constituted group of a public entity, but they do not apply to personal or campaign pages. Individuals can be blocked for violating clearly-stated guidelines on profanity or threats, but not for offering critical views. We also direct complainants to our “Know Your Rights” primer on social media blocking, which recommends contacting the elected official to 1) ask for an explanation, 2) request a copy of posting guidelines, and 3) demand to be unblocked. Last month we updated this toolkit with references to recent court decisions and added a downloadable “cease and desist” letter template that constituents can send to the elected official blocking them. If you believe you have been unfairly blocked by an elected official, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and check out the resources on our website.
This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2018 Fall Newsletter >>