ACLU presses coun­cil­woman not to block Face­book users

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Local news - By Adam Smeltz

Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette

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.

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