The ACLU of Kentucky just filed a lawsuit against Governor Matt Bevin for blocking user access on his official social media platforms. The suit argues that Bevin is violating the First Amendment rights of those constituents he’s blocked on Twitter and Facebook.
The challenge – filed on behalf of Kentucky residents Drew Morgan and Mary Hargis – states in part:
“Governor Bevin has created official Facebook and Twitter accounts for the dual purposes of communicating information to, and inviting comments from, the general public. These accounts are open to the public, and anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account may view the content and comments posted there and post comments themselves. In hundreds of instances, however, the Governor has “blocked” individuals, including the Plaintiffs, from these public forums, thus permanently barring them from being able to post comments and, in the case of Twitter, from seeing the Governor’s posts or the comments of others.”
Later on, the suit states:
“Plaintiffs allege that even if Defendant (or his agents) blocked them from the Governor’s official Twitter and/or Facebook account for reasons unrelated to the viewpoints they expressed in those public forums, the permanent ban on their ability to comment (or view the posts and comments of others on Twitter) nonetheless violates their First Amendment speech rights.”
The lawsuit is accurate in its contention that Bevin has blocked hundreds of people on Twitter and Facebook. WFPL reported in June on his efforts to block constituents stating:
“But as Bevin ramped up his criticism and online dispatches, he’s also blocked more than 500 Twitter users from following him, according to records released this week by ProPublica, a national investigative newsroom.
Bevin’s list of blocked social media users — obtained by ProPublica through a records request — includes many people who have shared their disdain for Bevin or President Donald Trump.”
Since then, the total number of blocks has surpassed 600 Twitter accounts.
Commenting on the lawsuit in a statement released by the ACLU, Plaintiff Mary Hargis said, “I’ve been very active in my community and in Frankfort for the past two years.” She added,
“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. I may not have voted for Governor Bevin, but I’m one of his constituents. He shouldn’t be permanently dismissing my views and concerns with a click.”
Plaintiff Drew Morgan offered similar remarks. “I often use the official social media pages of my local, state, and federal representatives as a way to share feedback,” he said in the ACLU statement. “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.”
ACLU of Kentucky Legal Director William Sharp offered additional context on the lawsuit and how it violates existing law. “The First Amendment does not allow the government to exclude speakers from 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.”
The ACLU lawsuit follows a July demand letter to the Governor’s office requesting Bevin unblock those accounts he has permanently blocked as well as set criteria on the moderation of official social media accounts going forward. Bevin’s office did not reply to that letter.
The ACLU lawsuit against Bevin shares similarities with the lawsuit filed against President Donald Trump for similar actions on his social media accounts. In the lawsuit filed against Trump by The Knight First Amendment Institute, the Plaintiffs argue his Twitter account is a public forum no different than a town hall meeting.
Jameel Jaffer, the institute’s executive director, said in a statement, “The First Amendment applies to this digital forum in the same way it applies to town halls and open school board meetings. The White House acts unlawfully when it excludes people from this forum simply because they’ve disagreed with the president.”
Bevin now faces similar legal scrutiny in a time where his office argues social media gives his office a way to work around traditional news media organizations to allow him to get his message directly to his constituents.
The ACLU lawsuit seeks to force Bevin to unblock all users he’s blocked on Twitter and Facebook. It also seeks an injunction against any future efforts to block Kentucky citizens access to the Governor’s social media accounts.