Constituents complain of lawmakers stifling free speech on social media

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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Stuart Riley, a politically active resident of Hazel Dell, said he uses Facebook to keep abreast of what’s going on locally and what sort of topics are worth closer attention.

A few months ago, he said he got into a heated disagreement over climate change with state Rep. Liz Pike, a Camas Republican who is running for Clark County council chair, where he said he “purposely used harsh language” to get her attention. He said Pike responded by blocking him on Facebook, meaning he could no longer tag her on posts or see the posts on her timeline.

Pike said in a text that she applies the same rules for civility at her town halls as she does for her Facebook page. She said people she blocks on social media can still contact her through email, phone or in person.

“It shuts out my voice, ” said Riley, who complained about the incident to ACLU of Washington.

Earlier this week, the ACLU responded to what it says are growing complaints like Riley’s by sending a letter to state lawmakers advising them that they could be infringing on the First Amendment rights of their constituents by blocking them on social media for voicing a difference of opinion.

“We encourage all lawmakers to ensure they are avoiding such unconstitutional censorship, and to unblock users and restore content that may have been removed based on viewpoints expressed,” the letter reads.

ACLU sees complaints spike

Although he didn’t have specific numbers of complaints and wouldn’t name lawmakers, Shankar Narayan, the ACLU of Washington’s technology and liberty project director, said his organization has seen a spike in people complaining about legislators from both parties blocking them on social media.

“Certainly, it follows a trend across the country,” he said. “And it goes all the way to the president.”

The letter states that speech has moved from the physical town square to virtual modern-day equivalents, such as Facebook or Twitter. The letter points to recent federal court decisions that concluded that speech on social media is still protected and that public officials can’t ban someone on social media for expressing a differing view. Currently, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University is suing President Donald Trump on behalf of blocked users.

While the letter specifically references lawmakers blocking constituents, Narayan said that lawmakers’ actions can affect non-constituents and that the ACLU is also concerned with the broader public being cut off from this means of communication.

He said that this is the first time the ACLU of Washington has sent out the letter to the Legislature in hopes of clarifying the issue. The letter states that even if a public official’s account isn’t designated as “government” or “official,” it’s still considered a public forum if it’s used to communicate with the public. Public officials can only regulate posts that are off-topic, spam, obscene, vulgar or racist, but not different viewpoints, according to the letter.

“Yet complaints we have received suggest that at least some lawmakers are engaging in exactly this kind of unconstitutional censorship,” reads the letter.

After hearing about the ACLU’s letter, The Columbian asked readers on Facebook if they’d been blocked by their public officials on social media. Several people stated that Pike had blocked them.

Riley specifically said he was booted from Pike’s Facebook after calling her a “liar.”

“What I’d like her to do is respond to me and explain how (her position) is defensible,” he said. “And instead of doing that, she just blocked me.”

Pike said in a text that she uses Facebook regularly to communicate with constituents. She said she welcomes “a diversity of ideas and opinion so long as folks debate the issues with civility and without personal attacks.”

“I don’t allow folks to participate who are rude, disrespectful or use foul language,” she said in a text.

When asked about calling a public official a “liar,” Narayan said that’s a different point of view and shouldn’t be regulated.

Other officials weigh in

Other readers responded to The Columbian saying that Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, had blocked them. Herrera Beutler’s spokeswoman Angeline Riesterer said in an email that the congresswoman has two Facebook pages, one for her reelection campaign and another for her congressional office.

“A review of the comments on Jaime’s Facebook posts reveals pretty quickly that she doesn’t stifle opposing viewpoints,” said Riesterer of Herrera Beutler’s congressional Facebook. “Her page’s automatic profanity filter is turned on, and we will hide comments that are blatantly abusive, though the latter is rare.”

In a separate email (from her private email in her capacity as volunteer campaign spokeswoman), Riesterer explained that Herrera Beutler’s campaign Facebook also doesn’t stifle opposing views and has a profanity filter, but is slightly less lenient toward abuse.

In a text, Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said her policy is not to block anyone on social media because she finds it crucial to hear what Washingtonians think. State Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, said in a text that regulating his social media hasn’t been a problem, but he would likely remove a vulgar, vitriolic or disparaging post.

State Rep. Vicki Kraft, a Vancouver Republican in her first term, said in a text that she has blocked a handful of people, but not for expressing a differing opinion. She also said that “being respectful is a consideration we all owe each other.”

State Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said she maintains a personal Facebook account that she keeps private, as well as one for her campaign. She said she can count on “one hand” how many people she’s blocked for egregiously insulting posts.

Republican senators Ann Rivers and Lynda Wilson didn’t reply to a request for comment.

State Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said she operates a Facebook page that blends her public and private life and includes her take on “issues of the day.” She said she actively manages the page and will direct people having a heated argument to “take it outside.” She said she’s blocked people for posting spam and, occasionally, “creepy stalkers.”

“I’m really trying to engage and talk to people who don’t agree with me because we all spend too much time with people who agree with us,” she said.

To that end, she said that sometimes, if someone initiates a conversation on a big topic, she’ll offer to meet them offline for coffee.