ACLU warns Utah’s members of Congress not to block social media users

Aside from illegal threats or obscenity, pols have no legal right to exclude viewpoints, civil-rights group warns.<br>

Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo Rep. Mia Love has blocked two identified constituents from her Facebook page (although she's unblocked one) in what the ACLU says is an unconstitutional violation of First Amendment rights. The civil-rights group has sent warning letters to all Utah members of Congress. In this file photo, Love canvasses neighborhoods in Riverton before her 2014 election.

Washington • The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah is warning Utah’s members of Congress against blocking social media users on their official accounts because courts have ruled that it violates free speech protections.

In letters to Utah’s three House members and two senators, the ACLU of Utah says that blocking social media users would violate the First Amendment and could bring possible court action unless the user engages in threats or other legally restricted language.

“Social media is a great way to facilitate public discussion, but those discussions need to include everyone, even people who don’t agree with their representatives.”<br>—Leah Farrell, ACLU of Utah attorney<br>

You and your office(s) have embraced social media as a key means of communicating and interacting with constituents and the public,” the ACLU of Utah says in the letters. “Because your social media pages are a public forum, your blocking of these individuals is an unconstitutional restriction on their right to free speech under the First Amendment.”

In a letter to Rep. Mia Love, the group notes two Utahns who had been critical of her — but did not threaten or use obscenity — were blocked on social media by the congresswoman’s office.

Love’s official Facebook pages banned Kathleen Ayala, who had been critical of the congresswoman.

While her comments were often scathing and sarcastic, none of them could be reasonably called threatening or obscene,” the letter to Love says.

Similarly, Love’s office blocked Tom Taylor, a Democrat who plans to run against Love, even though he never made any personal attacks or threats, the ACLU of Utah says. Taylor was later unblocked.

Love’s spokesman, Rich Piatt, says the office has rules to prevent offensive or false content or solicitation and they’re spelled out on the Facebook page reserving the right to delete user comments that “use or include profanity, name-calling, threats, personal attacks or explicit, racial, obscene or other inappropriate comments, language or material.”

Blocking is extremely rare and if it happens it would be a result of a glaring violation of these guidelines,” Piatt said.

Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch speaks during a Memorial Day celebration at Hogan Park in Woods Cross on Monday May 26, 2014.

Sen. Orrin Hatch’s office says it also has rules on its Facebook page “to prevent it from being used to traffic in palpably offensive content or demonstrably false information,” according to Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock.

We eagerly welcome the sharing of all viewpoints, and we are happy to engage when it’s possible to answer questions or clarify confusion,” Whitlock added. “But, to be clear, we are under no obligation to allow Senator Hatch’s Facebook page to be used as a platform for offensive content or misinformation. Anyone interested in posting such material has many alternative forums on an open and free internet.”

The ACLU has sued the governors of Maine and Maryland for blocking users on Facebook and sent letters to other politicians warning them against stifling free speech.

The ACLU of Utah said in its letters that the state’s federal delegation must “cease unlawfully censoring constituents by blocking their access to your social media pages based on the viewpoints they express there.”

We hope this information helps our elected officials stay on the right side of the First Amendment, when it comes to communicating with the public and their constituents,” said Leah Farrell, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Utah. “Social media is a great way to facilitate public discussion, but those discussions need to include everyone, even people who don’t agree with their representatives.”