When longtime Heflin resident Horace Merrill died last year, his son John — Alabama’s secretary of state — announced the death on Twitter.
Condolences began to pour in through social media. But there was one very different response.
“They said they were pleased that that occurred, or something like that,” Merrill said. He blocked the commenter — clicking a button to prevent that person from seeing anything else from Merrill on Twitter.
Merrill and other public officials who use Twitter and Facebook are facing growing scrutiny from critics who say that blocking authentic critics — or even “trolls” just trying to stir up an argument — should be off-limits to elected officials.
The American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year took up the case of an Arizona woman who is suing Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., for blocking her on Twitter. That suit follows another filed against President Donald Trump by several Twitter users who say the president has violated their First Amendment rights by blocking them on social media. Both suits argue that, by doing business on social media, public officials are disseminating information that any member of the public should have — and opening a venue to talk about public policy.
“Whenever a government official uses Twitter to communicate to the public about government business, he/she can’t block people from receiving and commenting on those messages,” wrote Karen Gullo, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an email to The Anniston Star. The EFF filed a brief in the Trump case.
Asked whether they’d ever been blocked by a state official online, The Star’s readers were quick to respond. Some said they’d been blocked by lawmakers, others by state auditor Jim Zeigler and one by the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, created by the Legislature to organize celebrations of the state’s 200th year of existence.
Most of the complaints, however, focused on Merrill. Several social media users claim Merrill blocked them, sometimes for asking questions about state elections or voting rights.
“I don’t know how many, but I can tell you, I’ve blocked a bunch of them,” Merrill said.
Merrill said he wants to be open to constituents. He said that the day after the special Senate election on Dec. 12, he arrived at his office to find 57 calls on his voicemail.
“Some of the people were cussing me out, telling me how sorry I was, calling me a pedophile or saying I supported a pedophile,” he said.
Merrill called all of them back.
“Most of them were more subdued when I talked to them,” he said. “They couldn’t fathom that I’d call them back.”
For Merrill, that’s the answer to Twitter wars as well. If a debate runs on too long or gets too contentious, he said, he’ll tweet his phone number and ask his critics to call him directly. If they don’t, they’re blocked.
University of Kentucky law professor Joshua Douglas is one of those blocked users. In November, Douglas tweeted that it was “deeply disturbing” that the secretary of state would block his own constituents. Merrill tweeted back to Douglas, asking him to call on the cell phone. Douglas didn’t call, and Merrill blocked him.
Douglas said he isn’t sure social media blocks by public officials violate the First Amendment, though he said it’s “inappropriate” and a violation of the social norms that typically surround public office.
“It’s a close constitutional question,” Douglas said. As governments increasingly turn to social media to reach out to constituents, he said, Twitter and Facebook become the primary place to petition the government for redress of grievances — a right guaranteed in the Constitution.
He said blocks could also have a chilling effect, persuading social media users to tone it down for fear of being cut off from access to information.
State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he doesn’t mind blocking users, but would be interested to see what the courts decide.
“I’m not sure I should have to give people access to a forum to talk about their own issues,” he said.
A few Star readers mentioned that Ward had blocked them from his account. Ward said he doesn’t recall a lot of specific times he’s blocked users, but he does remember extreme examples, like a California resident who often tweeted anti-Semitic material and for some reason tagged Ward.
Recently, Ward has started using another feature on Twitter: “mute,” which makes someone’s tweets invisible on your timeline, but never alerts them that they’ve been blocked.
“Technology’s moving so fast, I don’t think you can keep up with it in the First Amendment debate,” he said.