This post originally appeared on the website of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
Kelli Whitlock Burton of Waldoboro 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 Ms. Whitlock 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 Ms. Whitlock 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 from 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 sending the letter, the link has been removed). He uses the page to share press releases, directly address constituents in live videos, and has welcomed comments from constituents. In doing so, he created a public forum as recognized under the First Amendment.
Ms. Whitlock 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.”
Ms. Whitlock 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.