Now that not one, but two federal courts have deemed the attempts of elected officials to block constituents on social media a direct violation of the First Amendment, five grassroots groups in southern Brooklyn have banded together to pen a petition targeted at three elected officials they say have censored those who criticize them, calling on the trio to remove the blocks and allow for full transparency moving forward.
The pols in the hot seat — Congressmember Dan Donovan, state Senator Marty Golden and Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, all Republicans — have all blocked constituents they don’t agree with, Jennifer Gaboury, an organizer with South Brooklyn Progressive Resistance (SBPR), one of the groups behind the petition, told this paper.
“I personally have not been blocked, but I know plenty of people who have,” she said, stressing that a number of blocks that she has seen have come around times of vocal activism, though, that’s not always the case. “One of the things that’s been the most troubling to us is that it seems really arbitrary in terms of who is getting blocked.”
Some constituents have been blocked on Twitter, and some, on Facebook, said Gaboury, who also told this paper that some sharing similar messages have not been given the chop at all.
“There’s no real roadmap here,” Gaboury said, “no guidelines.”
That – and an overall sense of transparency – is what the groups are calling for.
The petition, now live on Change.org, cites two rulings. In one, issued on May 23 of this year, in Knight Institute v. Trump, a case brought in the Southern district of New York, U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled that the First Amendment bars the head of state from blocking critics on Twitter.
“We hold that portions of the @realDonaldTrump account ― the ‘interactive space’ where Twitter users may directly engage with the content of the President’s tweets ― are properly analyzed under the ‘public forum’ doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court,” Buchwald said in her ruling.
Twitter, Buchwald added, is where the president breaks much of his news, making it crucial that all Americans be granted access to it. “The @realDonaldTrump account has been used in the course of the appointment of officers (including cabinet secretaries), the removal of officers, and the conduct of foreign policy,” she wrote.
The petition also cites last year’s decision in Davison v. Loudoun County Board of Supervisors et al., in which U.S. District Judge James Cacheris found that public officials do not have the right to block people or delete comments from a Facebook account used for public purposes.
That suit came out of the Eastern District of Virginia.
The issue, Gaboury stressed, is multi-faceted.
“There is pruning of people going on but on the other hand, there is also this pruning of content,” she said, referring to instances in which the pols in question have removed racist comments on both platforms, leaving for partially deleted threads. The comments removed are not always derogatory, Gaboury said, adding that, on the other hand, sometimes, those that are removed are made by the pol’s supporters, the cleaning up of which leaves a sort of warped reflection in its dust.
“Nowadays, people are doing so much more than just responding to their representative or their staff,” she said. “They’re having a conversation amongst themselves.”
That, she said, is in part how social media mirrors a town hall – and is largely why the blocking of particular participants is so problematic.
“I’ve been blocked by both Senator Golden and Assemblywoman Malliotakis for pointing out their hypocrisy,” said Amy Zarkos, a lifelong Bay Ridge resident. “It’s beyond frustrating to see my reps claim stances I disagree with and not be able to comment, all the while reading comments posted mostly by constituents who do agree with them. People who aren’t in the know aren’t getting the full story, and that’s dangerous.”
As of this writing, reps from all three politicians in question have said their offices are reexamining their interactions with constituents, though they all state that prior removals were based on inappropriate language, not political opinions.
“Our office does not remove comments or users for posting political opinions. That should be clear by just reviewing a sample of the comments on the page right now,” said a spokesperson for Donovan. “Threatening, vulgar or offensive language is not permitted on the page.”
John Quaglione, an aide for Golden, shared similar sentiments.
“Senator Golden’s office has a policy of not responding to anonymous social media accounts and messages sent from them. Our social media team is well aware of the recent court decision prohibiting public officials from blocking followers on social media, and we are complying,” he told this paper. “Previously, accounts were only blocked because of inappropriate, abusive or vulgar comments. It is our hope that this rule change will cause social media conversations to take on a more respectful tone, and increase civility in discussions about politics.”
“Anyone who was blocked was blocked because they used profanity or abusive language, not because of their political views,” said Malliotakis in a statement. “They have since been unblocked and, moving forward, I hope they communicate their view, whether they agree with me or not, in an appropriate and respectful manner.”
Gaboury did confirm that Malliotakis’ office has unblocked at least a handful of her colleagues, as has Donovan’s (his official account was never really an issue, she added, contending that it was his campaign account where the bulk of the alleged misuse occurred). However, she said, her friends blocked by Golden have not yet been allowed back in.
“We’re really just calling for transparency and guidelines,” Gaboury said, stressing that, moving forward, if a pol or his or her staffer wishes to remove a comment or a user, there should be strict guidelines as to when and how that can be done.
By press time, the petition had garnered 126 of a hoped-for 200 signatures. It is signed by SPBR, as well as South Brooklyn for An Accountable Albany, Bay Ridge for Social Justice, Fight Back Bay Ridge and the South Brooklyn Progressive Network.
“We’d prefer not to have to fight to get you to respect the Constitution,” the petition concludes.