Gov. Ho­gan, stop delet­ing Face­book posts you don’t like

A law­suit filed by the ACLU of Mary­land asks the gov­er­nor to adopt a clear-cut, con­sti­tu­tional so­cial me­dia pol­icy.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

ELECTED OF­FI­CIALS have tra­di­tion­ally used town halls, let­ters and email cor­re­spon­dence to en­gage with their con­stituents. In the age of so­cial me­dia, Face­book and Twit­ter have emerged as key plat­forms for po­lit­i­cal di­a­logue. Law­mak­ers in­creas­ingly rely on these tools to in­form the public of their po­si­tions, an­nounce pol­icy changes and gauge con­stituent opin­ion. With this in mind, block­ing cit­i­zens from these fo­rums is akin to deny­ing them ac­cess to their rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

That, at least, is the ar­gu­ment of four plain­tiffs in a new law­suit against Mary­land Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) and two of his staffers, filed by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Mary­land. Ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint, Mr. Ho­gan and his aides deleted crit­i­cal com­ments from his Face­book page and blocked some com­menters from post­ing on the page. An es­ti­mated 450 peo­ple — some of whom had pre­vi­ously pressed the gov­er­nor on his po­si­tion on education pol­icy and Pres­i­dent Trump’s travel ban — have been blocked from the page since 2015.

Mr. Ho­gan’s of­fice claims that the com­ments that were re­moved were ei­ther hate­ful or part of a “co­or­di­nated” ef­fort, and that its Face­book poli­cies do not vary greatly from those of other politi­cians. Nei­ther of those de­fenses holds much wa­ter. While most public fig­ures take down abu­sive or racist posts, other top elected of­fi­cials in the re­gion have said that they do not delete com­ments solely be­cause they are repet­i­tive or stem from spe­cific groups. There is a cru­cial dis­tinc­tion here: Delet­ing public com­ments based on view­point reeks of cen­sor­ship. The case law, which is ad­mit­tedly in its in­fancy, seems to agree.

Many or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing The Post, cu­rate reader com­ments, but if they are not part of the gov­ern­ment, they do not have the same re­spon­si­bil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate with con­stituents. Mr. Ho­gan’s Face­book page is linked to his of­fice and run by gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees. It is both con­sti­tu­tion­ally and eth­i­cally held to a dif­fer­ent stan­dard.

The le­gal frame­work sur­round­ing free speech rights on on­line fo­rums is still de­vel­op­ing, and with time gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials may have real con­cerns about how to pre­serve con­struc­tive di­a­logue on their pages. Some dif­fi­cult ques­tions may present them­selves.

This is not one of them. The ACLU of Mary­land sim­ply asks that Mr. Ho­gan adopt a clear-cut, con­sti­tu­tional so­cial me­dia pol­icy that nar­rowly de­fines com­ments that should be re­moved. In­stead of delet­ing com­ments that cri­tique his pol­icy po­si­tions, Mr. Ho­gan should al­low them on­line — and, if he dis­agrees with them, re­spond and make his case.

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