Salt Lake City Council considers new social media rules following a resident’s First Amendment lawsuit

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune ) The City County Building on June 28, 2018.

The Salt Lake City Council considered a new social media policy Tuesday in response to a federal lawsuit a resident filed against current and past city council members, the current and former mayor and city staff he say blacklisted him online.

In an amended request for an emergency injunction filed late last month, Aaron Johnson — a veteran who was briefly a candidate in this year’s Salt Lake City mayoral race — says city officials violated his Fourteenth and First amendments rights by removing his contrarian comments from public pages. In the process, he contends, they have created a “sanctuary city for censorship.”

“What this case is really about, my case, is about political bias," he told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday. "Salt Lake City has allowed individuals in public office to block people who criticize them because they didn’t like their criticism.”

Johnson does not have an attorney and is representing himself in the case.

Discussion on the new policy — which provides protocol for hiding comments and blocking a user on any social media account considered to be owned or controlled by the council, as well as on accounts used to conduct any council business — came on the same day a court ruled President Donald Trump cannot block his critics on Twitter.

That decision, which upheld one from a New York-based appeals court, also has implications for how elected officials in places like Salt Lake City interact with their constituents on social media — a fact council members acknowledged during their briefing.

“There have been a number of social media requests and issues related to both the council Facebook page, our personal Facebook pages, our somewhat public Facebook pages, so we figured it’s best just to talk about this in public and just to move forward," Council Chairman Charlie Luke said. “So that’s what we’re doing.”

The council did not address Johnson’s lawsuit during its public work meeting but went into a closed session to speak further about how the new policies might impact the litigation.

The proposed guidelines state that the “default for offending posts or comments to remain on the social media pages or accounts" and that everyone in the city involved in online communication efforts will receive training on the processes for doing otherwise. A social media user who is blocked or whose comment is deleted from a public page may appeal that decision in writing to the executive director of the City Council.

“Most of the content in the draft is in practice,” Cindy Lou Trishman, a policy manual analyst, told the council. "The general pieces are in practice, and we do have an existing comment policy but we’re just making it formal to adopt it into the policy manual.”

A June 28 records request filed by The Tribune for a list of all accounts blocked or muted by any city-operated Twitter accounts and Facebook pages was still unanswered as of Tuesday.

Matthew Rojas, a spokesman in the mayor’s office, told The Tribune last year that Johnson was not blocked on any sites controlled by the administration. The Salt Lake City resident was, however, blocked from the City Council’s Facebook page — a status that dates back to at least 2014. A staff member told the council he was the only one she was aware of who had been blocked.

In a June 25 email that’s included as an exhibit in Johnson’s lawsuit, Salt Lake City Senior Attorney Catherine Brabson requested an extension for the city to respond to his suit in order to consider its new online rules. The revised social media guidelines would likely restore Johnson’s access to the comment space of the city’s accounts, she said, thereby eliminating the need for a lawsuit.

But Johnson, in his lawsuit, speculates there are ulterior motives behind the policy change.

“This course correction seeks to limit the political fallout of an existing mayors [sic] administration that green lighted the chilling of speech in funding a defense of First Amendment censorship by and through counsel,” he writes in the updated suit.

He also claims the change is an effort to help the two current candidates for mayor named in his filing: Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall and former Councilman Stan Penfold.

Mendenhall declined comment Tuesday and Penfold could not be reached.

Johnson’s complaint is the second he’s filed claiming his civil rights were violated on government social media sites. The first, filed in January 2018, names state officials from Lt. Gov Spencer Cox to Attorney General Sean Reyes as defendants.

He told The Tribune he had also filed a complaint against the new rules, which he believe are unconstitutional and “rife for challenge,” because they allow a pathway for the city to block a user.