Alleged social media blocking raises questions over First Amendment rights | Frederick County

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A social media spat between a former County Council candidate and current state delegate brought up questions regarding First Amendment rights this week.

Susan Reeder Jessee, a Democrat who ran for an at-large County Council seat last fall, alleged that Del. Dan Cox (R-District 4) blocked her on Facebook in a since-deleted post.

In the Facebook post from Tuesday, she wrote: “My delegate, Dan Cox will not allow me to comment on his delegate page. Trying to silence those he represents that may not agree with him is what is wrong with politics.”

By Thursday evening, the post was no longer viewable.

Cox had posted a fundraising event at the Machine Gun Nest on his Facebook page, to which Reeder Jessee answered on the platform that she was interested in attending. 

Neither she nor Cox could be reached for comment Thursday, but blocking constituents on social media has brought forward several legal battles recently. And the courts seem to have settled on a precedent: Elected officials may not block their constituents.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th District — which includes Maryland — ruled that the First Amendment protects individuals’ rights to post negative comments on government officials’ Facebook pages.

That case involved Brian Davison, a Loudoun County, Virginia resident, and Phyllis Randall, who is chair of the county’s Board of Supervisors. Randall blocked Davison from her political Facebook page, according to the opinion.

Circuit Judge James Wynn wrote the lead opinion for the court, arguing that government officials cannot choose whom to block on social media pages, even if their political views do not align.

“For example, if the government chose as its electronic public forum a social media site that allowed only registered members of one political party to post and comment, there would seem to be a compelling argument that the government’s selection of that social media site violated the First Amendment rights of members of other political parties, even if the partisan restriction was imposed by the private company, not the governmental body,” Wynn wrote. “Such a restriction would be seem to be no different than a municipality choosing to hold a town hall meeting in a venue that refused admission to individuals associated with a disfavored political party or viewpoint.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, reached a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Unit that required him to adopt a more open social media policy. Another court ruling found that the replies section for President Donald Trump’s Twitter account is a public forum and the president cannot block his critics for disagreeing with him.

Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) came under fire in a lawsuit by two men saying she blocked them on Twitter. 

State Sen. Ron Young (D-District 3) said Thursday he has  blocked one or two people from commenting on his political Facebook page since he created it, but hasn’t blocked anyone recently.

Social media has become a much more prominent realm for political discourse. And politicians have seen the advantages it brings to campaigns too. Young added that he appreciates the power of social media, and how it helps him connect with constituents. During last year’s campaign, he spent $25,000 on TV ads and $5,000 to promote Facebook videos, he said.

In the seven weeks leading up to the election, he posted one video a week about a current issue. Then, in the last week, he posted all of them, one for each day before the election.

Those videos tallied more than 100,000 hits, he said.

“Yeah, very much so,” Young said when asked if he thought Facebook was more effective than TV ads. “I spent a fifth of the money and I saw it was seen 100,000 times. … On TV, I don’t know if 100 [people] saw them.”

But with its effectiveness come some drawbacks that can sometimes lead to blocking constituents. Young said he will resort to blocking people only if they curse or become “really vulgar,” he said. But if they remain civil, then he will allow their comments, he said — he just won’t respond to them.

Follow Steve Bohnel on Twitter: @Steve_Bohnel.

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