Politicians and public officials in North Carolina who block online criticism or suppress critical comments on their social media pages are likely to violate the US Constitution.
An unprecedented court ruling this week has revealed that, to the extent that citizens have the right of First Amendment to address publically to government officials, and that social media now serve as a public space, similar at a public meeting, it is therefore unconstitutional for politicians to deny people the right to participate in this public debate.
Irena Como, senior attorney of the ACLU of North Carolina, said politicians were blocking people on social media "is something we hear a lot about." The American Civil Liberties Union has been involved in the lawsuit, saying government officials can not silence their critics.
"You can not ban speeches that you do not like social media accounts that you use to invite voters to discuss government business," said Como in an interview. "If that's what you're doing, it sends a very strong message: the officials must act quickly to learn about that decision."
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No federal court of appeal had ever ruled on the issue before Monday, when the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the social media actions of a Virginia politician targeting one of his critics were unconstitutional. The decision does not apply to the entire country, but to all States of the 4th Circuit: North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.
The same group that brought this lawsuit, the Knight First Amendment Institute of Columbia University, is also behind a lawsuit against President Donald Trump for his own blocking of critics by social media. Trump lost to the trial court last year but his appeal is still pending, the group wrote in a message posted on his website after the announcement of his victory in the Virginia case .
And although this week's decision only concerns the states of the 4th Circuit, not the president or the heads of other states, the group's executive director, Jameel Jaffer, wrote in his message that he "will undoubtedly have a considerable impact" on the formulation of future judicial decisions. .
The News & Observer has previously reported numerous cases of politicians from both parties in North Carolina blocking criticism on social media.
Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, said Berger's office was working on new social media guidelines that address this Court's ruling and other issues, and hopes that They will be ready by the end of the month, when the Legislature will return to Raleigh. .
"Until recently, there was no legal precedent governing social media policies. As a result, elected representatives from all levels of government had different ideas about how it should work, "said Ryan in an e-mail.
Other lawmakers may have their own social media policies, but many could turn to leaders such as Berger for advice. Ryan said that to face this court decision, one should "think of ways to allow a free exchange of views while protecting abusive, vulgar or threatening online behavior. As with any initiative, it will take time to find the right balance, but we are working on these issues now. "
Leslie Rudd, a spokesman for the highest-level Democratic senator, Dan Blue, said that his office had no official social media policy, but that other legislators had sought advice, she said. told them not to block people.
"Social media is a great way to encourage dialogue with constituents, and our members should support it," she said in an e-mail. "Not only is it now a court decision, it's just a good government."
Ford Porter, a spokesman for Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, said the governor's office was in good standing.
"The governor's office does not prevent anyone on any social media platform from contacting the office," Porter said in an e-mail. "It does not delete messages or responses either. Sometimes, if someone uses a cursed word on a Facebook response, Facebook programming automatically masks other users' comments. "
Como said the decision applied to the pages of the politicians in which they presented themselves as civil servants. This also applies to government official accounts. But this will not apply to purely personal accounts used by politicians and government officials, she said.
Logan Smith, director of communications for the Liberal Raleigh Progress NC Action group, also manages a Twitter account called @YesYoureRacist that he uses to call perceived the racism of politicians and others.
He said Twitter's mute function should politicians use instead of blocking people. On Twitter, if you disable other users, they can still see your messages, but you will not see their messages or responses. But if you block someone, he can not see anything you post.
"It would be like saying," I want to make a speech but Logan Smith can not watch it, "Smith said about politicians who were blocking people." That's not how our government and our government work. society."
In the Trump court case, the judge said it would be acceptable for the president to silence critics but not block them.
Stacey Matthews, a conservative blogger Charlotte who tweets the account @sistertoldjah, said she had been stuck by several democratic state legislators who are no longer in office, as well as by former candidates. She has no problem with the politicians who deploy the blocking button online.
"Social media has become a pretty ugly, sharp-cut place, and if you're a woman, that's especially true," she said in a Twitter message. "Women politicians should not have to suffer the vulgarities that people sometimes send on Twitter.
"And even if a person can be blocked by a politician on social media, that does not mean that the lines of communication are cut off. They always have the standard e-mail, phone and mail options that I think are anyway more productive ways of communicating with your elected officials. "
The decision of the court only dealt with politicians who block criticism for political speech. He did not address the issue of politicians who use blocking and suppress buttons for harassment, blasphemy and other non-political speeches.
Como said it was important to tell politicians that they could not silence their criticisms online. Nothing obliges the authorities to react. But now, if they block or suppress their comments, they could be sued for violation of the Constitution and possibly have to pay legal fees to their critics.
"This is one of the main ways they engage with their constituents," said Como. "So, they can not turn around and say," Do not pay attention, I will block you or delete your comments if you disagree with me. "