Blocking unwanted followers on social media, or “kicking losers to the curb” in technical parlance, is an unquestioned right of private citizens. But what about politicians? Can elected leaders, when using social media in their official capacities, scrub their follower lists of unwelcome critics?
The answer to that question is “no,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which contends that the right of citizens to follow elected officials on social media is protected by the First Amendment. To that end, the ACLU has filed lawsuits against the governors of Maryland and Kentucky for blocking individuals from following their official social media accounts.
According to one of the lawsuits, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan blocked followers on his official Facebook account, and also deleted comments left by followers. One of the plaintiffs in the Maryland case, Meredith Phillips, said she left a comment asking Hogan to issue a statement summarizing his position on the travel ban implemented by the Trump administration.
After that, she was blocked and the comment deleted.
The lawsuit against Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin cites two plaintiffs who contend the governor’s official accounts on Facebook and Twitter blocked them for their political opinions, rather than for posting “obscene or abusive” content, as Bevin’s office contends.
In filing the lawsuit, Kentucky ACLU legal director William Sharp stated that “the First Amendment does not allow the government to exclude speakers from a public forum because it disagrees with their viewpoint.”
Altogether, the ACLU claims that Bevin has blocked over 600 people from following his official social media accounts.
The lawsuits are seeking injunctions against the governors that would require them to stop blocking followers and allow the previously blocked users to begin following their official accounts again.
This isn’t the first time social-media blocking has emerged as a First Amendment Issue.
Last month, the Knight First Amendment Institute sued President Trump for blocking social-media accounts that express opposition to his policies.
Last week, a U.S. district judge in Virginia ruled that a local elected official, Phyllis Randall, violated the First Amendment rights of a constituent by blocking him on Facebook. Randall, who is chairwoman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, blocked Brian Davison from following her on Facebook after he posted a comment accusing the county’s school board of corruption.
The ruling is especially noteworthy because Randall’s Facebook page was for her own personal profile, not an official page. The judge ruled, however, that it was covered by First Amendment rights because she used it to ask for public feedback during office hours.