ACLU of Md. Suing Gov. Hogan for Blocking Facebook Users, Deleting Critical Comments

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Still via Gov. Larry Hogan/Facebook

Gov. Larry Hogan is facing a new lawsuit as a result of his (or his staff’s) social media activity.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland today sued the governor in federal district court, alleging his administration censored constituents by deleting their Facebook comments and blocking them from visiting his page. The group is representing four individuals who say they were shut out of the public forum that is Gov. Larry Hogan’s Facebook page.

The suit seeks a permanent injunction against the governor’s social media policy. The ACLU of Maryland, which advocates for First Amendment and civil rights causes across the state, said in a release that its clients “were censored in a targeted way and their political expression on the Governor’s page was blocked.” The nonprofit has enlisted help from two attorneys with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, both of whom are working on a pro bono basis.

“The highest purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the right of Americans to engage in political speech and to petition the government to address their concerns,” said ACLU of Maryland legal director Deborah Jeon in a statement.

Jeon cited precedent from a June Supreme Court case in which judges ruled sex offenders can’t be barred from using social media – thus strengthening the bond between the First Amendment and modern Internet use – and, in a more directly relevant example, a July federal court ruling from Virginia in which a judge ruled it’s unconstitutional for an elected official to block constituents on Facebook. Jeon also said Hogan’s behavior violates the First Amendment and Maryland social media guidelines for government officials.

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, labeled the lawsuit as “frivolous,” “completely without merit” and “a waste of taxpayer dollars” in an emailed statement, and said it “has more to do with partisan politics than anything else.” She noted the administration has its own social media policy, which says comments “may be removed” if they are profane, violent, repetitive, link to other content or constitute “a standardized letter or petition” or a “coordinated effort,” among other reasons.

The ACLU pointed out that none of the four plaintiffs knew each other when their comments were deleted and their accounts blocked. One of them, Meredith Phillips, was quoted in the release saying she actually voted for Hogan in the 2014 gubernatorial election, but wrote on his page this year to ask him to speak out publicly against President Donald Trump’s travel ban. (Her comment was deleted, and she was blocked.)

The nonprofit also said it reached out to Hogan’s camp in February on behalf of seven people who were also blocked or saw their Facebook comments deleted. His staff informed them they had been unblocked, but several of them later found they were still shut out online.

It’s never a nice feeling to be sued, but at least Hogan is in good company. The Hill reports Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin has been slapped with a federal lawsuit for a similar reason.

Ethan McLeod
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