Friday, March 17, 2017

Public officials who block social media accounts may be running afoul of the law

Posted By on Fri, Mar 17, 2017 at 11:16 AM

click to enlarge BLOCKER: Sen. Linda Collins-Smith is among the legislators who block people from her Twitter account. A Florida case raises the question of whether public officials may do this.
  • BLOCKER: Sen. Linda Collins-Smith is among the legislators who block people from her Twitter account. A Florida case raises the question of whether public officials may do this.

Interesting report from Miami on an effort to stop a Florida politician from blocking critics from his Facebook page. It includes this:

Courts have repeatedly ruled that elected officials who discuss public matters on social media accounts are not allowed to block people or delete posts they don't like, because those pages are used to disseminate public information. Courts have also ruled that politicians' social accounts become public records once they use those pages to discuss official business.

Wow. I'm aware of no legal precedent directly on the point in Arkansas. I think it fair to say the prevailing belief among politicians here is that their social media accounts — Twitter and Facebook, particularly — are their private domains. But, when you think about it, it makes sense that they might not be. You may not use a private e-mail account, for example, as a means of defeating disclosure of public business under the Freedom of Information Act.

Might this be a lawsuit waiting to happen in Arkansas? The most notorious blocker is Sen. Jason Rapert, but he is by no means alone. A number of Republican legislators and at least one Republican Supreme Court justice, Rhonda Wood — all of whom discuss public business at times on their social media accounts — have blocked me and others from their Twitter accounts. University of Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long is another public employee who blocks those who irk him.

From the article:

According to a public-records request filed by an amateur First Amendment advocate, Artiles has blocked roughly 400 people on Facebook — a massive number in an age when access to social media is increasingly viewed as a right afforded to all Americans. Politicians' social media block lists have sparked multiple lawsuits and public-records battles in recent years, from suits against police departments in California and Hawaii to legal battles over Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine's own, seemingly extensive (and still secret) Twitter block list.

Grant Stern, a journalist, has been pressing the case in Florida.

Stern says blocking people on Facebook is even worse than censoring folks on Twitter, because politicians typically use Facebook to announce more in-depth information than they do via tweets.
PS: There are ways around these blocks, of course, though it's a bit cumbersome

PPS: Thanks to Brian Fanney at Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for some other relevant links.

The debate is happening in Maryland, too, where the ACLU has faulted governor for Facebook censorship.

And here's a law prof's discussion of free speech rights relative to websites that are clearly government sponsored. It provides some leeway to politicians' own sites:

Sometimes individual politicians or private political organizations have their own independent social media presence. Depending upon how they are set up, these may not be considered government forums, even though public officials are using them. Individual politicians who set up their own Facebook pages or Twitter accounts, without governmental sponsorship or funding, are probably not subject to the limitations discussed here.

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