Maryland offers lesson about censorship on officials’ social media
In Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s office, just one official — a 20-something junior staffer — is in charge of managing and monitoring the boss’s official social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. That (presumably overworked) aide must also figure out when commenters are within their First Amendment rights to scold, blast or zing Hogan, a Republican, and when they cross the line into what another official called “nastiness” and may be censored or banned altogether.
Where exactly is that line? “It’s like porn,” said Doug Mayer, the governor’s spokesman. “You know it when you see it.”
The trouble is, sight lines can be hazy when it comes to distinguishing constitutionally protected speech on social media sites from comments that are clearly unacceptable. Hogan’s office, sued last year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland for its zeal in deleting critical posts and blocking some commenters altogether — in certain cases for civil and forthright criticism — has agreed to new terms governing his sites.
In settling the lawsuit with the ACLU, the governor’s office scrapped language on its Facebook page warning commenters that their posts could be removed, or access restricted, “at any time without prior notice or without providing justification.” A new, more detailed policy lays out violations that could trigger removal, including threats of violence, divulging private information and irrelevant commentary, as well as profanity, indecency and obscenity. Organized “spam” campaigns that inundate the governor’s Facebook page with identical commentary will also be blocked.
Those seem like fair rules for official social media sites, akin to what courts have called limited public forums where topics but not points of view can be restricted. They may also serve as a model for officials elsewhere coming to terms with rules for their own social media sites.
Those include President Donald Trump, who hasn’t hesitated to ban Twitter users who annoy him from his account, @realDonaldTrump, thereby suppressing dissent. Some of those users are now suing the president, including one plaintiff, Rebecca Buckwalter, who replied to a presidential tweet with one of her own, saying, “To be fair you didn’t win the [election]: Russia won it for you.” After her tweet elicited 9,100 likes and 3,400 retweets, she was blocked from Trump’s account, according to the lawsuit.
Politics is a poor pursuit for the thin-skinned, as some politicians learn the hard way. In Hogan’s case, he admitted no guilt in settling the lawsuit brought by the ACLU along with four Marylanders. However, while 450 people were banned from the governor’s page in his first 2½ years in office, through last summer, just 18 have been barred since then. About half the users originally blocked had participated in organized online “spam” campaigns.
From now on, commenters disqualified by Hogan’s social media accounts who promise to follow the rules will generally be reinstated. And the governor’s office has established a second Facebook page, called State of Maryland Constituent Forum, as a free-for-all for users who want to vent about government generally - according to the same enumerated rules. Lessons learned, all around.