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After landmark First Amendment ruling, more Loudouners share stories of social media censorship

Conservative activist Rick Canton of Sterling says he has been blocked for years from Del. Kathleen Murphy’s (D) Twitter account.
What do a local government contractor, a conservative activist in Sterling, gay rights leaders in Lovettsville, a Purcellville politician and members of a left-leaning political action group have in common?

All have been blocked from an elected official’s social media account for challenging their policy positions.

Following a federal court ruling last month that said Chairwoman Phyllis (D-At Large) violated Lansdowne resident Brian Davison’s First Amendment rights by blocking him temporarily from her Facebook page, residents from Loudoun and around the country have come forward with more stories about how they were censored from the social media pages of their elected officials.

“For a politician to just say outright you're no longer allowed to post in this public forum that I've created, I think that does definitely cross a boundary,” said conservative activist Rick Canton of Sterling.

Canton says he was blocked from Del. Kathleen Murphy’s (D) Twitter account in 2013 after he challenged her position on gun rights. He also says he was initially blocked from State Sen. Jennifer Wexton’s (D) Twitter account but later reinstated after challenging her on the same issue.

Jonathan and David Weintraub – LGBTQ activists from Lovettsville -- claim they were preemptively blocked from Del. Dave LaRock’s (R) Facebook page before they could even interact with him on the page. They believe LaRock banned them because of their liberal reputation on equal rights issues.

“When it comes to being criticized and disagreed with and presented with information that might be inconvenient for [politicians], they should not be able to block that from happening in a public forum,” David Weintraub said. “And when they put up an official Facebook page that says, ‘I am the delegate of the 33rd District,’ that's a public forum, it’s not a personal page.”

Purcellville Town Councilwoman Karen Jimmerson says she has been blocked from State Sen. Dick Black’s (R) Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as LaRock’s Twitter page, though the delegate later reinstated her.

But Jimmerson finds herself in a unique – and some would say hypocritical – spot. She admitted she has blocked people from her social media page, which she maintains is a campaign page. Jimmerson said the users were banned because their comments were “extremely vile postings that were personal in nature as opposed to focused on the subject being debated.”

In addition to Jimmerson, Chairwoman Randall, Sens. Wexton and Black and Del. Murphy, Congresswoman Barbara Comstock (R) and state Del. Tag Greason (R) have also blocked citizens from social media pages.

Western Loudoun constituents say they have been blocked by Del. Dave LaRock (R).


A tide-turning decision, but confusion ensues

U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris’ decision in Davison’s case against Chairwoman Randall and the Board of Supervisors has already shown regional and national implications.

Lawyers from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which recently filed a lawsuit against President Donald Trump and his social media team, say the president suppressed dissent by blocking critics from his Twitter account. They said they plan to point to the Davison decision to help their case.

Some elected officials, like State Sen. Wexton and Del. LaRock, also appear to be taking steps to unblock constituents from their social media pages.

But mixed rulings on the issue from different judges from the same federal court has caused some confusion, as has debate over what are personal, campaign and official social media accounts.

A separate ruling on a free speech suit Davison brought against members of the Loudoun County School Board from a different judge in the same federal court said members of the School Board did not violate Davison’s right to free speech for blocking him from their pages.

In a 20-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga noted the issue was “not clear as a legal matter” whether the Facebook pages in question were limited or public forums.

Senator Wexton’s office said after the court clarified that public officials cannot block constituents, she unblocked accounts “regardless of how they previously behaved.”

Wexton's office said its social media policy has been to not block constituents as long as their messages did not become “threatening or unnecessarily aggressive.”

Delegate LaRock said that in the last few days he and his office have published a disclaimer on his Facebook page reserving their right to delete user comments that include “profanity, name-calling, threats, personal attacks, or other inappropriate comments or material.”

LaRock said members of the GOP caucus have also met to discuss the Davison decision, but they do not think the ruling will affect their social media accounts that are “considered personal and treated as personal.”

The western Loudoun delegate maintains his social media accounts are campaign accounts and not official government business. Altogether, he thinks he has banned roughly a half dozen people over the last six months, though he says he is open to unblocking them.

“The only time I would delete a comment is if it is something that's out of context, or is just an unfounded accusation that is not really in any way connected with an inquiry for information, which I generally consider to be intentionally disruptive,” LaRock said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia this week sent a letter to all members of the state’s congressional delegation asking them to stop blocking people from their official and unofficial social media accounts used for official purposes simply because they oppose what they are saying.

The ACLU said many of the complaints they received from constituents around the commonwealth did not distinguish the elected official’s accounts between official and political.

But with the rulings coming out of federal court in Alexandria, Alan Gernhardt, head of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, said they plan to talk about the recent decisions at a meeting later this month.

“We’re trying to stay aware of it, and we’re trying to watch things. I think we will try to address it sometime in the future, but we don’t really have specific guidelines on social media right now,” Gernhardt said.


Related coverage:

-"Loudoun resident files civil rights suits against county officials over social media censorship"
-"Federal judge sides with Loudoun commonwealth’s attorney in First Amendment suit"
-"Loudoun County chairwoman, Lansdowne resident meet in federal court"
-"U.S. District judge rules Randall violated Lansdowne resident’s First Amendment right"
-"Federal court dismisses Lansdowne resident’s free speech suit against Loudoun County School Board"
-"Loudoun County resident’s First Amendment case may benefit free-speech group’s suit against Trump"




Contact the writer at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or on Twitter at @SydneyKashiwagi.

Comments


cindylou, how many immigrants have you taken in to your house? How many have you sponsored?
ILLEGAL immigrants are breaking the law, why can’t that get through some people’s heads? The current administration is simply enforcing laws that should have been enforced for years.


Officials can set rules me.g. nobody gets more than 2 posts). But you can’t block folks on an official page for what you think is trolling. I have never been around so many weak people who would rather shut down somebody else’s speech than debate and win. It is pathetic.


Karen Jimmerson trolls the Facebook pages of Republicans and posts ad hominem attacks.  You’d think she would butt out as she would want to work with LaRock and Black, who represent her town.  But no.  Because she is a liberal, she feels she has some high moral obligation to state her views on these people’s pages, some of which are personal pages.  As an elected office holder, you would think she would know better, but she does not. Is it any wonder the Purcellville Council is such a mess?


I know it is not social media but what about Randall blocking public comment for the June 29 Transportation Summit?


tomasinleesburg, yeah we have enough Americans that suck of the American tax payers, we can’t take on anymore.  5 generations of welfare families in all the inner cities, the clowns in Congress and the Senate, Criminals getting 4 star treatment and healthcare in prisons, etc, etc, etc.  Can’t have immigrants taking anything for free.  It’s not about being a liberal, it’s about being human.


cindylou, you forgot the one word all liberals always fail to mention, illegal. I believe all of us welcome immigrants, and most of us actually welcome law-abiding, hard-working, tax-paying illegal aliens who aren’t accepting welfare or other forms of taxpayer assistance.


This is all backwards! The only confusion about Facebook and Twitter is that people think these platforms somehow should curtail the rights of politicians and government to censor not only their constituents, but the press and their political rivals!

Politicians have time-honored traditions of being the “managers” the forums they choose for us to “meet” with them — whether it’s not leaving enough time at the school auditorium for the promised Q&A or us arriving at the school board meeting and discovering the promised two minutes of speaking time has shrunk to 30 seconds or the reporters at the press conference with the hardball questions never getting called on or question pivoting and dodging at townhalls. These are all forms of censorship, and while we sometimes complain about these tactics of “managing” communications, we never take politicos to court over them.

Most of us accept with few questions when politicians and governments go into private session or restrict ballot access to protect incumbents and keep contenders off debate stages, tacitly accepting these censorship tactics. Even the ejection of undesired attendees at political rallies ultimately becomes acceptable. So what’s our problem with politicians deleting opposing or uncomfortable electrons on Facebook?

From time immemorial we’ve given our elected representatives and their appointees the right to censor us in so many ways, so are we not being disingenuous in expecting them to relinquish these tools that enable them to “control the conversation” just because they are so visible to all?

That Facebook and Twitter forums effortlessly and cheaply create verbatim and permanent transcripts of not only what the politicians say, but what questions they are asked (and which ones they ignore), argues against applying First Amendment concerns to social media. Why should advances in technology automatically limit the rights of officials to disregard the questions of their choice?

We need to look at this carefully and ask whether the 24/7/365-sunshine of social media is treating our representatives fairly. Do they not also have rights?


Ha! Oh the joy of social media! Doesn’t matter if your a kid or the President.  You don’t like what you hear or see…block it!!!  I think it’s great.  I wish I could block the “Fake News” I hear and see all day long right?  Welcome to Trumpland!!!  Good thing she’s not an immigrant, she would be shipped out!!!


It shows incredible weakness to block someone from posting on your Facebook page. It demonstrates you really can’t compete in the marketplace of ideas.

The other point of the article is you can’t trust a single word that comes out of the govt attorneys’ mouths. Whether it is Loudoun county attorney Leo Rogers, LCSB attorney DeVita, or Herring’s attorneys, they either don’t understand the law or just say anything to benefit their client. In fact, I am filing a motion for sanctions against Herring’s attorney in a Data Collection Act case where they just didn’t want to follow the plain letter of the law. Unless and until judges will slap down these specious arguments from corrupt politicians and their lawyers, we will continue to face public officials trampling on rights. Unfortunately for us in Loudoun, Judge Jeanette “the jury trial queen” Irby won’t enforce any law against govt officials. So we must leave Loudoun to get any justice.


Although not an elected official’s page, the Virginia High School League—a private organization funded almost wholly by taxpayer dollars from every school system in the commonwealth—has blocked me from Commenting on its Facebook pages for 600 days.

The block coincides with my post asking them to reconsider the venue of the annual scholastic debate state championship tournament, an issue resolved nearly a year and a half ago (it was relocated).


Dave LaRock says his social media account is personal?  Let me quote from the top of his Twitter account:

Constitutional Conservative Republican representing Virginia’s 33rd House District.  I serve on Transportation, Science & Technology, and Education committees

That seems to me he’s citing his position as a Delegate in Richmond.  Can’t have it both ways.

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