Declaring a First Amendment victory, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland announced today that the state Board of Public Works has approved a settlement in the group’s social media banning case against Gov. Larry Hogan.
Last August 2017, the ACLU filed suit against Hogan on behalf of four individuals, among the hundreds reported being wrongfully banned or blocked, challenging his policy of censoring constituents’ speech on his official Facebook page by blocking those who disagree with him and deleting their comments.
The agreement mandates that the Governor “will not discriminate based on viewpoint and will permit all commentary on his Facebook page on any past topic he has covered,” according to an ACLU release.
Under the terms of the settlement, the governor’s office must also “create a second Facebook page dedicated to providing a public forum where constituents can raise a host of issues for the governor’s attention.”
The agreement also calls for the creation of an appeals process for constituents who feel their comments have been improperly deleted, or that they have been wrongfully blocked. The policy governs all of Hogan’s social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Youtube.
“It never occurred to me that the Governor, or his staff, would seek to prohibit me from engaging in conversations in a public forum, simply because my opinions differ from their positions.”
The case parallels other complaints against public officials for blocking social media commentary elsewhere, including a lawsuit filed against President Donald Trump.
“The first thing that I did was just laugh, because I thought: this has got to be a mistake,” Holly Figueroa O’Reilly told the Guardian after she was blocked by the President of the United States. “Why is the most powerful man in the world blocking me on Twitter?”
Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, noted that rulings by the Supreme Court and other courts have affirmed online commenters’ speech rights.
“We are excited to see Maryland in the forefront of protecting speech rights in this context with this model social media policy,” said Jeon, who represented the plaintiffs along with pro bono counsel Lisa Zycherman and Christopher Savage, of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.
A spokesperson said Hogan was glad the matter has been resolved.
“We are pleased that the ACLU has decided to drop this frivolous and politically motivated lawsuit and reach a settlement with the state,” said press secretary, Shareese Churchill. “Ultimately, it was much better for Maryland taxpayers to resolve this, than to continue wasting everyone’s time and resources in court.”
Janice Lepore, one of four plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in the ACLU release that she originally joined the Governor’s Facebook page to learn about his positions about education issues.
“When it became clear that the Governor’s positions differ from my own, I engaged in conversation,” she said.
“It never occurred to me that the Governor, or his staff, would seek to prohibit me from engaging in conversations in a public forum, simply because my opinions differ from their positions,” she said. “Nor did it ever occur to me that when these prohibitions became public, the Governor and his staff would malign those of us who had been silenced. I hope this settlement will promote greater access and engagement for all Maryland citizens.”
To see how the governor’s social media policy changed, review the text below showing the policy before and after the settlement.