By Pam Greenberg
The average state legislature has 58 percent of all members on Facebook and 65 percent of all members on Twitter, according to one source.
As public officials, they’ve likely had more than their share of online “trolls” following and friending them. But can they block or ban these individuals from their official or personal accounts?
Late last month, a Virginia federal trial court said no—at least to a county official who banned a constituent from her Facebook page.
Phyllis Randall, chair of the county’s board of supervisors, created a page outside of the county’s realm, specifically to avoid being constrained by county social media policies. However, her Facebook page was titled “Chair Phyllis J. Randall,” was designated as a “Government Official’s,” and provided her county telephone number and email address. She also posted information relating to her role as a county supervisor.
Brian C. Davison, a Loudoun County resident active in local politics, posted comments to Randall’s Facebook page alleging corruption among local school board members.
Randall then banned Davison, the court found, because she was offended by his criticism of her colleagues. Although she reconsidered and unbanned Davison the next morning, he filed suit claiming that Randall had violated his constitutional rights to free speech.
Other elected officials and state legislators also are coming under scrutiny for banning or blocking followers. Citing a significant number of complaints from people being blocked from posting, tweeting or commenting on public officials’ social media accounts, the ACLU of Virginia earlier this month sent letters to members of Congress, urging them to “review their social media policies to be sure that their accounts are administered and curated in a manner consistent with the Constitution.”
It’s unclear what direction this rapidly evolving area of case law ultimately will take, but observers will be watching closely one of the most visible cases—the recent lawsuit filed against President Donald Trump for blocking Twitter users critical of him from his personal @realDonaldTrump account.
Pam Greenberg tracks internet and technology issues for NCSL.