Despite a recent federal appeals court ruling, the rules are far from clear on whether elected officials can block critics on social media.
By Dave Copeland | Feb 27, 2019 4:51 pm ET
SALEM, MA — Several Salem residents say Mayor Kim Driscoll broke federal law when she blocked them from viewing and commenting on her Facebook page. Driscoll regularly uses her social media accounts to offer updates on city initiatives, engage with constituents and post news alerts.
Salem Patch has reached out to Driscoll’s office and will update this story with comment when we hear back.
In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that public officials cannot block constituents from viewing or commenting on their social media pages. In that case, an elected officially temporarily blocked a constituent from viewing her Facebook page. It was the first ruling by a federal appeals court whether free speech protections prevent public officials from barring critics online.
A similar case has been filed against President Donald Trump. That lawsuit argues Trump violated the First Amendment right to free speech of people he had blocked on his Twitter page.
In Salem, the issue was first raised with a letter to the editor of the Salem News. In it, Salem resident Justin Whittier said he has heard from several residents who have been blocked by Driscoll. Whittier ran for Ward 2 City Councilor in 2017.
“This isn’t simply a matter of silencing bad actors,” Whittier wrote. You can find comments from those supportive of the mayor on her page engaging in vitriolic, even discriminatory speech, and yet they remain unblocked. Those whom she apparently blocks are critics.
Ward 5 City Councilor Josh Turiel, who also makes extensive use of social media, said in a Facebook post Wednesday afternoon that he maintains two separate social media personas — one personal, one political — and tries to avoid local, political issues “as much as I can” on his personal Facebook page.
“On this page, I apply a very, very different standard. I will block virtually no individuals (the current list is three people),” he wrote. “I’m fine with anyone being on here for the most part so long as they treat each other and me well. There’s people who post on this page seriously and respectfully, and I treat their questions and comments accordingly. On other pages they may savage me – but as long as they behave well on here I’m not going to have a problem with it.”
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