Here’s what to do if a public official blocks you on social media

What to do if a public official blocks you on social networks? The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has created new tools to help people recognize censorship by public officials and take action to address it.

Censorship by public officials “has been a concern as we have heard of government officials across the country inappropriately blocking people,” said Veronica Fowler, director of communications for the ACLU of the ‘Iowa. “As we explain in the documents, it is not constitutional.”

The ACLU offers a step by step guide and flowchart help determine if a person’s constitutional rights have been violated. The ACLU also provides a sample letter for those who have been censored to send to their public official and a list of frequently asked questions regarding censorship.

Public officials are increasingly using Facebook, Twitter, Zoom and other social media platforms to share information related to government business. These functions subject their page to First Amendment protections, meaning they can’t block accounts or delete comments just because they disagree.

Shefali Aurora is an attorney for the ACLU of Iowa. (Photo courtesy of the ACLU of Iowa)

“Different forums get different levels of protection,” said Shefali Aurora, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Iowa. “When a government official uses this type of public platform to communicate with constituents or in their official government role, it is considered a public forum, and in a public forum, the First Amendment protections would apply. “

Officials on both sides of the aisle tried to block criticism. In 2017, a lawsuit was filed in federal court against former President Donald Trump after he blocked accounts for posting comments opposing his administration.

The court determined that Trump’s Twitter account served as a public forum under the First Amendment and was therefore unable to exclude viewpoint-based comments. Shortly after the ruling, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., faced two lawsuits after blocking criticism from her Twitter account.

What is a government social media account?

To determine whether or not a page is a government account, Aurora said it comes down to the primary use of a social media page.

Common features of a social media account conducting government business often include email addresses as well as links and addresses to the public official’s office. In addition, public accounts often display government symbols, information about government functions, and bear the official title of the office holder on the account.

“It really depends on how they primarily use it, because they can still post family information to a government account,” Aurora said. “If they use it primarily to conduct government business, engage with constituents, update constituents and interact with them; then it would lean more towards an official government account on a public forum.

The mere fact that a public official has an account on a social network does not automatically qualify it as a public account. Public officials are always entitled to privacy, which creates gray areas. If a public official uses an account primarily for personal purposes such as family or self-interest photos, the First Amendment protections do not apply to those who are prevented from viewing or commenting on the site. Aurora said the ACLU of Iowa was not aware of any instances of censorship.

Government officials are able to block narrowly defined forms of speech such as real and immediate threats, incitement to imminent lawless action, or obscene material. Additionally, Aurora said officials could have a neutral content and viewpoint policy for their social media pages.

Campaign accounts can upgrade to government accounts

There is a difference between campaign accounts and official government accounts. During a campaign, the candidate is not an official government actor, which allows campaign accounts to limit followers.

“Sometimes a page may be created and then evolve into an official government page if the person is elected,” Aurora said. “That could change.”

In 2020, 99% of US senators and 98% of US representatives posted on Twitter while 100% of congressmen used Facebook, according to Statistical.

“These days, social media has become a crucial way for voters to communicate with their elected officials,” Aurora said. “More than ever, elected officials and government agencies are also using social media to communicate with their constituents and the public, so it’s extremely important that people know their rights are protected on social media.”

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