Public Officials on Social Media: How Does Free Speech Fit in?


 

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Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., and other social media sites allow users to block others from posting on their pages for any reason. From a U.S. legal standpoint, private citizens can limit their audiences as they see fit.

But what happens when the person doing the blocking is a government official?

Two Kentucky residents filed suit July 31 against Gov. Matt G. Bevin for blocking them from posting comments on his official Facebook page and Twitter account. One day later, four Maryland residents sued Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan for blocking them from posting on his official Facebook page.

The plaintiffs, represented by the Kentucky and Maryland chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, allege that their respective governors violated their rights to constitutionally protected speech. 

In the meantime, President Donald Trump faces a suit in a federal district court in New York over whether blocking Twitter users from his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account violated the First Amendment.

The three complaints raise the question of how far the First Amendment extends to social media accounts maintained by government officials. A federal district court in Virginia recently addressed that question.

The Virginia court held July 25 that the chairman of the Loudoun County board of supervisors violated a resident’s free-speech right by banning him from the chairman’s official Facebook page, even though the ban only lasted 12 hours. The court said the case implicated the First Amendment because the chairman created the page the day before she took office and maintained the page in her official capacity.

It remains to be seen whether the courts in Kentucky and Maryland will rule in similar fashion. The New York court has an additional factor to weigh, given that Trump created his Twitter handle when he was a private citizen.

Amelia Chasse, spokeswoman for Hogan, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 2 that the lawsuit against the Maryland governor has no merit. “The governor’s office has a very clear social media policy that fosters open and constructive dialogue, and we will continue to remove users who violate this policy,” she said.

A spokesperson for Bevin and the White House press office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.