ACLU presses councilwoman not to block Facebook users
The American Civil Liberties Union is urging a Pittsburgh City Council member to unblock people from her Facebook page.
In a letter Tuesday to Councilwoman Darlene Harris, an ACLU leader argued that “excluding people from the platform because they have criticized you is a form of viewpoint censorship that violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
“By blocking our clients, and others, from accessing your Facebook page, you are denying them both access to important government information and a cheap and effective communications medium with their elected official,” wrote Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
He wrote on behalf of four of the
councilwoman’s constituents who were blocked from Mrs. Harris’ page after challenging her there, although “it is our understanding that you have blocked many individuals ... after they voiced certain viewpoints,” according to the letter. It threatens “appropriate steps to protect our clients’ constitutional rights” if Mrs. Harris doesn’t respond and amend her ways by Dec. 4.
Those steps could include litigation, Mr. Walczak told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Mrs. Harris, who has described her Facebook page as a personal account, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Walczak said the letter is among several that the ACLU sent Tuesday to officials in Pennsylvania over similar concerns. He would not reveal how many other letters were sent or identify their recipients, saying he wanted to allow them “breathing space.” He said no one else in Allegheny County was targeted.
“If you’re an elected official and use social media to provide constituent services and engage in constituent communications, you are subject to First Amendment rules,” Mr. Walczak said. “Probably the most robustly enforced rule is that you can’t censor people based on their viewpoint.”
He said courts have held for several decades that “viewpoint censorship” — effectively keeping a viewpoint from discussion — is off-limits for public officials. Mrs. Harris blocked at least three constituents in October — Christopher MacTaggart, Chris Rapier and Lora Rigatti — when some questioned her Jeep’s appearance on a park access road, according to Mr. Walczak’s letter.
Another constituent — Jeff Suzik — was blocked in March after he challenged Mrs. Harris over development, Mr. Walczak wrote.
His letter indicates that Mrs. Harris has used her Facebook page to relay “crucial information” to constituents and broadcast announcements, at times directing people to contact her through a city email account.
The correspondence also cites a federal court decision against social-media censorship by an elected official. That case — Davison v. Loudoun County Board of Supervisors — remains on appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Virginia.
The ACLU has filed several other lawsuits over elected officials’ inhibiting users of social media. Blocked Twitter users brought a related case against President Donald Trump in New York. That litigation is pending.