FRANKFORT A social activist from Morehead and a Louisville resident are suing Gov. Matt Bevin after he blocked them from his Facebook and Twitter accounts, claiming he’s violating their constitutional rights to free speech.
The ACLU of Kentucky filed suit in federal court on behalf of Mary Hargis of Morehead and Drew Morgan of Louisville, seeking a ruling that Bevin’s blocking the two from his social media accounts violate their First Amendment rights. The suit also seeks an injunction to prevent Bevin from blocking people from the accounts.
“I’ve been very active in my community and in Frankfort for the past two years,” Hargis said. “I’ve been frustrated with Governor Bevin’s stances on a number of social justice issues. I was shocked when I discovered that I was blocked from further commenting on the governor’s posts.”
Bevin’s account has blocked as many as 600, according stories by various media outlets including The Courier-Journal.
Bevin and his spokesmen have previously said he welcomes feedback on his social media accounts, but he has maintained he is within his rights to block those who post obscene or uncivil comments online.
But according to a press release from the ACLU of Kentucky, neither Hargis nor Morgan posted comments that were “obscene, abusive or defamatory.”
William Sharp, legal director for ACLU of Kentucky, said the government can’t exclude comments on a public forum “because it disagrees with their viewpoint. And even when the government seeks to enforce permissible limits in such a forum, permanently excluding individuals for violating those limits goes too far.”
“I may not have voted for Governor Bevin, but I’m one of his constituents,” Hargis said in the same release. “He shouldn’t be permanently dismissing my views and concerns with a click.”
Morgan, said he often uses social media pages of his “local, state and federal representatives as a way to share feedback.”
“I was surprised when Governor Bevin blocked my access to his Twitter page, particularly because of how many times he has asked Kentuckians to follow his social media pages to hear about his ideas and policies directly from him,” Morgan said.
Bevin has frequently criticized press coverage of him and his administration and routinely advises the public to get their information from his social media accounts, bypassing the “filter” of professional media and reporters.
Amanda Stamper, Bevin’s communications director, said Bevin continues to welcome comments on his social media pages — but reserves the right to block those who post obscene or abusive comments.
“As we’ve said many times before, Governor Bevin is a strong advocate of constructive dialogue, and he welcomes thoughtful input from all viewpoints on his social media platforms,” Stamper said.
“Unfortunately, a small number of users misuse those outlets by posting obscene and abusive language or images, or repeated off-topic comments and spam,” she said. “Constituents of all ages should be able to engage in civil discourse with Governor Bevin via his social media platforms without being subjected to vulgarity or abusive trolls. Blocking individuals from engaging in such inappropriate conduct on social media in no way violates their free speech right under the U.S. or Kentucky constitutions, nor does it prohibit them from expressing their opinion in an open forum.”
The ACLU suit counters that Bevin’s policy of permanently blocking people for engaging in political speech on official government social media accounts or forums isn’t sufficiently narrow to promote legitimate government interests in moderating speech and thus “constitutes an unlawful prior restraint on speech.”
President Donald Trump, who is notorious for using Twitter, has also been sued for blocking followers. In another similar, but unrelated lawsuit, a federal court last week ruled that a Facebook page utilized by Loudon County (Va.) officials to communicate with constituents couldn’t block a user. But in the same ruling, the court said its ruling doesn’t forbid “moderation” of such speech.