Aaron Johnson is what many people would consider an online troll.
The Salt Lake City resident delights in jabbing elected politicians with comments that are almost always barbed, mocking and sometimes combative.
“I don’t know if I consider myself a provocateur,” Johnson, 53, who goes by the online name Aaron Jones, said in interview.
“I don’t try to provoke people,” he says, but then allows, “It might just come naturally to me. … It’s just humor; to me it’s funny.”
Johnson, a veteran, says his voice has been muted, illegally so. He claims he’s been blocked from a number of government social-media sites because officials don’t like his contrarian views. And he’s fighting back.
In a rambling, poke-in-the-eye federal lawsuit written and filed without the help of an attorney, Johnson accuses Salt Lake City of violating his constitutional rights of free speech and equal protection.
Citing the recent federal court ruling against President Donald Trump for blocking critics from posting to his Twitter account, Johnson accuses Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the City Council of “Trump-like restrictions.”
This viewpoint-based censorship, he argues, is the height of hypocrisy given the liberal enclave’s “empty slogans about inclusion.”
Among other things, he calls out the the city’s Human Rights Commission, claiming it banned him from its Facebook page.
“The irony of that mixed metaphor of equality is like a Fahrenheit 451 fire sale at its $742/sq ft. main library!” he writes in his 99-page complaint, filed earlier this month.
Matthew Rojas, a spokesman for the mayor, says the lawsuit doesn’t have “much merit.”
“If you read through the entire kind of screed that he’s written, you can see he as much as admits he’s not blocked” on the sites controlled by the mayor or her administration, he said.
“We don’t block individuals” as a matter of policy, he added. “We also don’t delete comments. We will hide comments if they contain foul language or threats.”
Rojas said he recently checked social media sites under city control — including the Human Rights Commission — and Johnson is not blocked from any of them.
Johnson is blocked from the City Council’s Facebook page — a status that was imposed at least dating back to 2014.
He is believed to be the only individual banned from the site, which publishes rules about what’s not allowed — from endorsing candidates or commercial products to promoting discrimination by spouting racist or sexist views.
It describes itself as a limited public forum and warns that “comments that do not relate to a topic posted by the city may be removed.”
A spokesperson said council members cannot comment on pending litigation.
Johnson’s recent federal lawsuit is the second he’s filed claiming his civil rights were violated by being blacklisted on government social media. The first, filed in January, names multiple state officials as defendants — from Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox to Attorney General Sean Reyes.
State attorneys have responded with a motion to dismiss, basically on grounds that the 91-page pro se lawsuit is a mess of irrelevant insults, grudges and “unintelligible allegations.”
Reyes’ chief of staff, Ric Cantrell, recently reviewed the offices’ online presence.
“I went into the control panel of our website and I saw that we had 17 different administrators and most of them I didn’t know.”
Many were long-gone interns or office assistants.
“That’s been the whole course of our spontaneous evolution into the social media realm — that it wasn’t centrally planned.”
Johnson, he found, was banned from the A.G.’s Facebook page beginning in 2012, before Reyes was elected.
“I don’t know who did it or why,” Cantrell acknowledged, without admitting any wrongdoing in the ongoing complaint.
Lawsuit notwithstanding, he said, “we can always revisit our policies and retool and it’s my inclination to whitelist everybody who’s been banned and personally invite them to re-engage.”
Before doing that, however, Cantrell plans to create a policy “that makes clear what the expectations are. We would then direct and moderate the tone as if we were in a legislative committee hearing or a town hall.”
“As we write these policies, the paradigm will be that the citizens own the government and not the other way around,” he said.
The ACLU of Utah has gone on social media to warn elected officials not to block people based on criticisms or other viewpoints. It also wrote to all six members of the state’s federal delegation last fall to clarify these issues.
“We receive a steady stream of complaints,” said Jason Stevenson, the organization’s strategic communications manager.
Most come from people dealing with state or local government.
“That’s where you’re seeing more of the friction happening between constituents who are trying to comment on the Facebook or Twitter accounts primarily of elected leaders and seeing that their viewpoints or access are being blocked and they’re wondering what their rights are,” Stevenson said.
Those rights are rapidly evolving. In addition to the recent federal court ruling involving the president’s Twitter account, the ACLU has sued governors in Maine, Maryland and Kentucky for similarly blocking constituents on Facebook.
The civil-rights organization last week asked Vermont Gov. Phil Scott to stop deleting critical posts and blocking constituents on Facebook.
Scott’s office said it is simply trying to maintain a civil dialogue, The Associated Press reported.
“This is a nexus of new technology, new ways to interact with elected leaders and the law is slowly catching up to figure out what are the boundaries for free speech and public forums on the internet,” said Stevenson, of the Utah ACLU.
The organization publishes a concise primer, Know Your Rights: Social Media Blocking.
Among other things, it says standards must be posted on the social-media pages of government agencies, must be applied consistently and “must not block speech that is critical, unpopular, or negative to the elected official or is protected speech under the First Amendment.”
Stevenson has this analogy: “If an elected leader has a town hall, can they restrict the people who come through the door if it’s a public event, based on their political viewpoints? The answer is probably no.”
Johnson acknowledges his views might not be popular and “I find a lot of people will not like me for the things that I write.”
But he says he doesn’t threaten or harass government leaders online — just writes things they disagree with or things that offend them. To those officials, he says — get over it.
“That’s part of the political process. If you’re too weak to withstand some criticism and some dissent, you know you shouldn’t be in office.”