Mary­land of­fers les­son about censorship on of­fi­cials’ so­cial me­dia

The Progress-Index - - OPINION -

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.

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