The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana offered some advice to Republican Senator Steve Daines Wednesday. They want him to stop blocking Montana residents from his official government Twitter account.
“By blocking users, it prevents them from being able to engage in discourse about the various different issues that are raised by Senator Daines on his account," says ACLU of Montana attorney Elizabeth Ehret.
ACLU sent a letter to Daines this week saying censoring constituents violates First Amendment rights to free expression and the right to petition government officials. Ehret says Wednesday’s letter was spurred by one very specific and troubling complaint recently fielded by the organization.
“Given the utmost importance of free speech and the intersection between social media and free speech, we really felt it was important to address this and remind Senator Daines of those responsibilities he holds towards Montanans.”
So what’s the big deal about a public official blocking a constituent from their social media? She or he can always write a letter, place a phone call or visit that official’s field office, right?
“They could, but just because an individual has access to other avenues of speech doesn’t mean the senator can pick and choose which forums an individual can utilize to engage in the protected speech.”
Lee Banville is an associate professor of Journalism at the University of Montana.
“If I were Senator Daines’ social media editor, I would take very seriously this letter.”
According to Banville there’s a growing body of legal precedent supporting ACLU’s position on politicians blocking constituents from their social media.
The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, just last year ruled that a North Carolina law prohibiting sex offenders from accessing social media sites was a violation of the First Amendment.
Banville says that unanimous decision sent a crystal-clear message that, “Social media has emerged as such an important platform for speech, that any kind of limits on it need to be viewed really skeptically by the courts.”
When contacted for comment on the ACLU’s complaint, Senator Steve Dianes’ office issued this statement.
“When you are in public service, people have a right to have their voices heard and express strong dissenting opinions. That is part of the democratic process. Sometimes there are lines crossed where you get vulgar and profane comments and that would be a situation where you might look at blocking a user.”
ACLU attorney Elizabeth Ehret says, "Just because a speaker is impolite, it doesn’t mean he has different rights than any other speaker. If we start placing limitations on speech just because it’s rude, it will have a chilling effect on all speech and send us down a rabbit hole of placing limitations on who can or can’t speak based on the content of what they’re trying to say.”
UM Journalism professor Lee Banville says this is the wild west for speech issues during social media’s adolescent phase.
“We’re trying to come up with what are our rights as speakers and do we have a responsibility to the community we’re speaking to, or do we just have rights as individuals to speak. Historically it’s all about the right of the individual to speak. It is not about how we all feel about what happens on the comment section of YouTube," Banville says.
ACLU of Montana says its complaint to Senator Daines is just that right now – a complaint. The organization has made no mention of a potential legal challenge.
MTPR reached out to Democratic Senator Jon Tester for comment on this issue. Tester’s office says he does not block anyone on Twitter.
Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte does not have a congressional twitter account. His representatives did not respond to our questions about his thoughts on the ACLU’s complaint in time for our deadline.
Update 05/17/18 12:25 p.m.
After this story was originally published, a spokesperson for Senator Daines contacted MTPR with the following concerns:
“Out of his [Sen. Daines'] 38.5k Twitter followers, there are twelve that are blocked. Most of which are fake or bot accounts. Below is an example of two individuals whose tweets that aren’t from bots that are now blocked. The Senator has many young people who follow him on social media. Would the MTPR be willing to post these on their website or say them on air unedited? I will add that Twitter and Facebook also delete comments or block users that they find to be vulgar, threatening or overly offensive. There is also no way to verify that these are constituents. The Senator gives you full permission and encourages you to publish the unedited version of these tweets in your story.
“Additionally, If someone uses old fashioned pen and paper and writes a harassing letter with expletives or racial comments, we will not engage with them, send them our newsletters or solicit information from them. The same is true on Twitter.
“As the ACLU letter states in its release, 'On your official website, www.daines.senate.gov, you provide constituents with a variety of options for communicating with your office…'
“As the ACLU makes clear, constituents have a number of ways to communicate with your office.”
Sen. Daines' office sent these tweets as "an example of two individuals whose tweets that aren’t from bots that are now blocked."