ACLU says Fischer, Stothert wrongfully block people from social media

The ACLU of Nebraska is calling on U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and other public officials to not block critics from their government-affiliated social media accounts.

The ACLU said it’s received complaints from people who say they were blocked from the official accounts held by Nebraska’s congressional delegation, Omaha’s mayor and the York County Sheriff’s Office.

The organization said it’s received “multiple complaints” regarding Fischer and Stothert.

The ACLU said it sent a letter to the officials on Thursday in hopes of “correcting problems prior to exploring litigation.”

A spokeswoman for Fischer said the senator’s office in 2013 established social media accounts to communicate with constituents. “Our staff is currently reviewing the various settings to ensure that all Nebraskans have access to these pages,” the spokeswoman said in a statement to The World-Herald.

Stothert said in an interview that she doesn’t block people who are critical but may hide and eventually ban commenters who continually violate her Facebook page’s terms of use.

She said the city’s Law Department helped draft the terms of use, which say Stothert can remove inappropriate or offensive comments. The terms, which are on her Facebook page, say people who promote racism and otherwise violate the page’s rules can be banned from posting. Stothert shared a sampling of posts in which people called her names and otherwise used vulgar language.

“I don’t want to leave these things on there,” she said, noting that her page is viewed by young people.

Stothert said her Facebook page started a decade ago as a private account but converted to a fan page that people can follow. She now treats it as an official account, she said.

Stothert said that she doesn’t post on Twitter but that her staff does. No one has been banned from her Twitter, she said.

Rep. Don Bacon hadn’t seen or received a letter on the matter as of Thursday afternoon, a spokeswoman said.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska’s 3rd District said the congressman welcomes engagement on his social media pages. “He does not block his critics or dissenting comments,” she said.

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse said he also doesn’t block social media comments. “The senator welcomes all comments — positive or negative — but he especially appreciates pictures of your grandma’s cat,” a spokesman said in a statement to The World-Herald. “We don’t block anyone or delete critical comments.”

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry did not respond to a request for comment.

Elected officials who block people from viewing or posting on their official accounts are violating the First Amendment, according to Amy Miller, the Nebraska ACLU’s legal director.

The ACLU has filed lawsuits in three states — Kentucky, Maine and Maryland — over officials blocking constituents.

“We would not tolerate a government agency kicking a concerned constituent out of a public hearing just because they disagree with an elected official,” Miller said. “The same principles apply in the digital age.”

Miller noted that officials can maintain private accounts, as long as they don’t use them to conduct official government business.

John Bender, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor and First Amendment scholar, described the issue as new, as more public officials have taken to Facebook, Twitter and other means to communicate with constituents. He agreed that social media accounts used for official government communication are public forums.

“To kick someone out of the public forum because you don’t like what they’re saying is unconstitutional,” he said.

In the letter, the ACLU told officials and their staffs to stop blocking access to official accounts, stop deleting critical comments and restore access to those who have been blocked.

The organization also invited officials to delete their official accounts, saying “there is no requirement that any elected official have a social media presence.”