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

Aug 2, 2017
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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. Spokespeople for the governors didn’t immediately respond to
Bloomberg BNA requests for comment.

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.


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