“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,” Karen Gullo, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Star this week.
Gullo was commenting on recent lawsuits filed by citizens against officeholders who blocked them on Twitter. The plaintiffs, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union and other free-speech advocates, argue that politicians’ blocks on social media amount to a violation of First Amendment rights. Twitter and Facebook are modern-day public squares. Thus, these elected officials are cutting off channels of communication to citizens. Two such politicians being sued for blocking are U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., and President Donald Trump.
“The suppression of critical commentary regarding elected officials is the quintessential form of viewpoint discrimination against which the First Amendment guards,” a Virginia judge ruled last summer in a similar case.
“This is the bedrock principle,” Katie Fallow, senior attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, which is party to a suit against Trump, said in 2017. “If there’s any kind of forum the government is operating for expression, it may not discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.”
By his own admission, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill is a frequent Twitter blocker. “I don’t know how many, but I can tell you, I’ve blocked a bunch of them,” he said this week.
Merrill told The Star that he prefers to settle social media spats by inviting someone to have a phone conversation. If the other person declines, then Merrill blocks them.
Spot Merrill some credit for attempting to lower the online temperature by having a phone conversation rather than battling it out in cyberspace, where the insults and nastiness can ramp up quickly.
Social media is a wonderful tool, allowing citizens a chance to communicate with public officials in a way not previously available. Those same officials also enjoy a fantastic platform for reaching out to constituents. Yet, the online world is full of trolls who aren’t interested in a civil exchange or the honest exchange of information.
Our advice to Trump, Merrill and other elected officials with itchy Twitter-block fingers is to follow some sage digital advice: Just ignore the trolls rather than blocking them.