To Block or Not to Block: Officials Grapple With Free Speech on Facebook and Twitter

Technology forces government to confront all sorts of legal and ethical questions it has never pondered before. The latest example: Should public officials be able to block people on social media? 

A number of elected leaders, including the President of the United States, are facing that dilemma as we speak. Donald Trump was sued in June by a group of people he blocked on Twitter. A Murrieta resident has also complained that Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) wrongly blocked him from viewing the congressman’s social media posts.

Last month, a federal court weighed in on the matter. U.S. District Judge James Cacheris sided with a Virginia man who was blocked by a county supervisor for alleging school board corruption on Facebook.

“Indeed, social media may now be ‘the most important’ modern forum ‘for the exchange of views,’” the judge wrote in his opinion, which could have significant implications for elected leaders at both the federal and local levels. “The First Amendment applies to speech on social media with no less force than in other types of forums.”

But there’s a line between speech and harassment, and it’s one Rep. Ken Calvert’s spokesman Jason Gagnon says is too often crossed.

“In the few instances where individuals post abusive, obscene or threatening messages, they have and will be blocked from our official accounts,” Gagnon said. “Examples of messages that have resulted in individuals being blocked includes obscene personal attacks and messages indicating they hope the congressman dies from AIDS.”

The Press Enterprise began asking around to see how other California politicians were handling the matter. With no set legal standard, it found a discrepancy in responses.

Reps. Adam Shiff (D-Burbank), Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), and Norma Torres (D-Pomona) reported no blocked users. But Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside) said he’ll put the kibosh on anyone who uses “violent, profane or abusive language” on his page. The offices of Mimi Walters (R-Irvine), Darrell Issa (R-Vista), Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), and Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) did not respond to requests for comment.

So who’s right and who’s wrong? The issue will continue to make its way through the courts but, ultimately, experts say we may need federal legislation to see that question resolved.


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