Kentucky Governor Can Block Critics On Social Media, Judge Rules

Siding with Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, a federal judge has denied the American Civil Liberties Union's request for an order prohibiting the governor from blocking critics on Facebook and Twitter.

U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove in Frankfort rejected the ACLU's argument that the social media sites were "public forums" -- like city parks -- where the government isn't allowed to discriminate against speech based on viewpoint.

Instead, he ruled, Bevin's use of Facebook was "personal," and he has no obligation to allow members of the public to comment to him through the site.

Bevin "never intended his Facebook or Twitter accounts to be like a public park, where anyone is welcome to enter and say whatever they want," the judge said in an opinion issued Friday.

"He has a specific agenda of what he wants his pages to look like and what the discussion on those pages will be," the judge wrote. "If he wanted a truly open forum where everyone could post or comment, he could have set up his accounts to allow that, but he did not. And the First Amendment does not require him to do so."

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The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit brought on behalf of Kentucky residents Drew Morgan and Mary Hargis, who alleged that Bevin blocked them on Facebook after they made critical comments. Moran said his comments related to Bevin's property taxes, which were overdue, while Hargis criticized his right-to-work policies and a job apprenticeship program.

The judge said in his ruling that Bevin "is not suppressing speech, but is merely culling his Facebook and Twitter accounts to present a public image that he desires."

Bevin isn't the only public official to face legal action over his use of social media.

President Trump currently faces suit for blocking people on Twitter, and Maine Governor Paul LePage is being sued for blocking critics on Facebook.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who was also sued over social media blocks, recently resolved the lawsuit by agreeing to refrain from deleting critical comments on Facebook, Twitter or other social media platforms.

Hogan's office also is adopting a new social media policy that prohibits discrimination based on viewpoint, but allows for the removal of some comments, including ones that contain profanity, are "disruptively repetitive," or "clearly unrelated to governmental concerns."

The Maryland settlement, announced Monday, ends a lawsuit filed last summer on behalf of four Maryland citizens who said they were blocked from Hogan's Facebook page, or had their comments deleted from the page. They alleged that Hogan and other state officials violated the First Amendment by deleting comments and blocking users "because of political disagreement with the messages posted."

That complaint drew on a February 2017 Washington Post report that officials blocked around 450 people from Facebook since Hogan took office. Many of the bans came soon after the 2015 Baltimore protests over the killing of Freddie Gray, and in January of 2017, after President Trump issued a ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

The lawsuit against Trump is pending before U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in Manhattan. She suggested at a recent hearing that Trump could resolve that case by "muting" critics instead of blocking them.

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