Public Officials on Facebook: ACLU Tells Maine Gov. LePage to Stop Censoring Comments

By Scott Dolan

Kelli Whitlock Burton of Waldoboro, Maine, asked Gov. Paul LePage a tough question this month: Why did he blame the media for his own false statement about going on vacation as the threat of government shutdown loomed?

Gov. LePage responded to Burton with the delete button.

He censored her question from his official verified Facebook page. He then took his censorship a step further by blocking her from ever commenting again on the forum he created specifically for communicating with his constituents. What the governor did violates the First Amendment, which guarantees that Burton and every other citizen has the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances” regardless of their viewpoint.

That’s why the ACLU of Maine sent a letter to Gov. LePage demanding he cease his unconstitutional practice of selectively deleting and blocking those whose viewpoints he disagrees with and reinstate commenting privileges to those who have been improperly blocked.

The governor’s Facebook page is different than the Facebook accounts of most users. As an elected official, his page serves a government function. He sought verification from Facebook to certify the authenticity of his account and linked to it from the government’s website (since the ACLU sent its letter, the link has been removed). He uses the page to share press releases, and address constituents directly in live videos, and he has welcomed comments from constituents. In doing so, he created a public forum as recognized under the First Amendment.

Burton was well within her right to comment on Gov. LePage’s Facebook page. Her comment — her first ever on his page ­— was polite and followed the protocols laid out on the state’s social media policy. She even took a screenshot of the comment to prove it. The state’s policy calls for removal of only comments that are “scandalous, libelous, defamatory, or pornographic” and suggests that agencies could adopt additional social media rules to remove comments that are “off topic, duplicative, obscene, or offensive.”

Burton is not alone. The governor also deleted comments from many other constituents who questioned or criticized him. The ACLU is compiling a growing list of others who were similarly blocked from commenting on the governor’s page.

Gov. LePage may not want to listen to everyone’s thoughts and opinions. Praise is nice, but questions and criticism can be hard to hear. Hurt feelings, however, do not give the governor grounds to trod on the rights of the Mainers he has sworn to represent.

Scott Dolan is a legal intern at the ACLU of Maine. He is also a former reporter for the Portland Press Herald.

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.

Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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