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Va. ACLU calls on politicians to stop blocking people on social media

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia wants the state’s congressional delegation to stop blocking people from their official and unofficial social media accounts used for official purposes.

In a letter sent Tuesday to all of the state’s congressional representatives and U.S. senators, the ACLU called on the politicians to not block people from their social media accounts simply because they don’t like the content of what the commenter is saying.

The civil rights group said its letter to Virginia’s congressional delegation was prompted by a “significant number of complaints from people across the commonwealth” who said they had been blocked from posting, tweeting or commenting on social media sites maintained by members of Congress and other public officials.

“As social media becomes more integral to the political process and public discourse, it becomes incumbent on government officials to recognize that they must not engage in any form of viewpoint censorship in violation of the First Amendment in curating their social media accounts,” said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, the ACLU of Virginia’s executive director.

The ACLU’s letter to Virginia’s congressional delegation comes as people from around the country and the region are accusing politicians of blocking them from their social media pages for being critical of their political positions.

But in an emerging area of law in the digital age, guidance from the courts on how free speech should be protected in that sphere was scarce until last month, when a federal court ruled Loudoun County Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) violated Lansdowne resident Brian Davison’s First Amendment rights by blocking him temporarily from her Facebook page.

Gastanaga cited the recent decision out of Loudoun County, and she warned the state’s congressional delegation that many of them operate their social media pages the same way as Randall.

“Most of you, like the Loudoun chairwoman, have routinely used your social media accounts as a means of communicating about your official activities and established them as a public channel of communication,” Gastanaga said. “On your pages and feeds, you discuss events you attended, bills you support, and often use a hashtag linked to your official duties.”

Gastanaga called on the congressional delegation to review the policies that guide them and their staff in administering their social media accounts. She also stressed the congressional delegation needed to ensure those policies protect their constituents’ First Amendment right to freedom of expression on any social media channel unless the content of that speech is “vulgar, discriminatory or outside the scope of the sites’ concerns.”

Gastanaga pointed out that many of the state’s congressional delegation maintained at least two social media accounts in an effort to “draw a line between your political activities and your official duties as members of Congress” and to comply with House and Senate Ethics Rules on the use of public and campaign funds.

However, she said the complaints the ACLU received generally did not distinguish between official and political accounts.

“[T]he reality is that, although only one of two social media accounts on the same platform is characterized or designated by your office as an ‘official social media account,’ many of you appear to be using your designated political accounts routinely and regularly to report news about your official actions as representatives and senators and to engage with your constituents,” Gastanaga said.

In the case against Randall, the chairwoman tried to argue her “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook account was a personal page, but Judge James C. Cacheris pointed out that the chairwoman created the page the day before she assumed public office with the help of her county chief of staff. He also said she created the account for the purpose of addressing her constituents and asked them to post on the page in question, and thus the account was “borne out of” and “inextricably linked” to the fact of Randall's public office.

“Designating one account as the ‘official account’ may not be sufficient under all circumstances to ensure that your political account isn’t also an official congressional social media account, and a public forum,” Gastanaga said. “Using your political account to communicate personal messages to your constituents from you in your official capacity discussing voting decisions or policy, or to describe or distribute photos of official public appearances may convert your political social media accounts into congressional social media accounts.”

According to the House Ethics Manual, the ACLU said members are free to maintain non-official social media accounts like campaign or personal accounts, but said those non-official accounts “cannot utilize official resources.”

“However: ‘official resources of the House must, as a rule, be used for the performance of official business of the House,’” Gastanaga said. “Official resources include staff time allocated for the use or maintenance of social media accounts, official or unofficial. If you are using your unofficial page in an official capacity or delegating staff members to assist with account maintenance, you could be in violation of House or Senate rules.”

She also said even though some of their accounts used disclaimers specifying and reserving the right to remove content and others did not, a disclaimer “cannot overcome constitutionally protected rights to engage with you as public officials in a public forum subject only to reasonable time, place, manner restrictions, and not based on content or viewpoint.”


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

Comments


WestLOUDOUNer.. no way. Everyone loves Brian, ask him. Funny thing is I do agree with his agenda but his dilettante methods are extremely tiresome, coupled with his “I am never wrong” attitude has turned me against his agenda. He could tell me the Pope is Catholic and I wouldn’t believe him.


They probably thought being associated with VAsgp would give them a bad name.


People have freedom of speech. Others have a right not to listen. Even politicians.
Maybe the ACLU should worry about attempting to be unbiased. The ACLU used to serve a purpose. Now they serve a misguided radical Liberal agenda.


Funny how the ACLU of Virginia ignored every single request of mine to assist in my legislation but now is “leading the charge”.  I guess their refusal to help out had to do with our differing policy positions.  Such a shame that a “civil rights” organization is blinded by their partisan views in determining which cases to pursue.

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