ACLU lawsuit raises tough questions about social media use

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8/11/2021

WOONSOCKET – Recent American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit reveals stark differences between local politicians’ approach to social media, forcing some to question whether or not to use media social.

Last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt on behalf of two townspeople, claiming she violated their constitutional rights by blocking them from her Facebook page. The two men, Greg Duhamel and Thomas Dubois, were both stranded after making separate comments on his page questioning his posts.

According to Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, the case has a strong legal status based on the results of similar cases across the country. In previous cases, he said, courts have ruled that public officials cannot block an individual from their page based on their opinions, as it would bar them from participating in a public forum.

Most importantly was against President Trump, and a federal appeals court ruled that his Twitter account was a public forum and that he could not block individuals from his feed solely on the basis of their disagreement with his views “, did he declare.

This is the first time the matter has come to court in Rhode Island, he said. In previous cases, the case has been informally resolved after the ACLU sent a letter to the officials concerned, he said.

Baldelli-Hunt defended her actions with The Breeze last week now that the Facebook page is a personal page she uses to share information with the public. She criticized previous court rulings, saying the policy allows inaccurate and vulgar statements to go unchecked on the pages of officials.

“When people go off topic, or when they start putting inaccurate information on the page, and I respond and say it’s not right, these are the facts, but they keep perpetuating the inaccurate information for their own agenda, so yes, I blocked a few people who were very vulgar, ”she said.

In Duhamel’s case, he was blocked after posting a now deleted comment on one of Baldelli-Hunt’s posts accusing him of lying about his role in setting up a skate park in the city. According to the lawsuit, Dubois was blocked after commenting “When does construction begin this weekend at River Island Park?” on one of his messages at the end of June. The same week, critics accused her of trying to prevent a Pride event in the city by scheduling construction work at the River Island Art Park and a car show alongside the event.

“If I post about a car cruise, they post about insanity that doesn’t apply to car cruising. You can’t even ask them politely because they have a political agenda, ”she said.

“I think there is something wrong with our world when you have to allow people to spit out inaccurate information and vulgarity because you are an elected official,” she added.

Last Friday, Baldelli-Hunt said she unblocked the individuals. Brown said the group still plans to move forward with the lawsuit.

“In the absence of a formal stipulation that the mayor will not block people on his Facebook page in the future from expressing their views protected by the First Amendment, we do not believe the matter to be moot and we are going to continue the trial, “he said. noted.

The issue raised a difficult question for other local officials, who spoke to The Breeze about their approach to social media this week. In Cumberland, Mayor Jeff Mutter said he had always been anti-censorship.

“If this is me, I wouldn’t report it,” he said. “You can say pretty much anything you want.”

Once the criticism fell on his family or his business (in which he is not involved as mayor), he said: “I will defend this as hard as anyone will defend it.”

The only time online reviews would bother him is if he thought someone was right, Mutter said, because he is at a point in his life when very little escapes him. He said he was not a fan of blocking people, and his staff are also aware of this position. There might be a case where some comments are hidden, he said.

Mutter said he doesn’t believe there is a policy in Cumberland on the use of social media, but that maybe that’s something the city needs to start thinking about.

In his opinion, Mutter said, every time he allows a bad social media post to drag him down is a distraction as time is running out to solve real problems.

North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi said he and his staff do not block anyone from the city pages, including his own political page.

“It doesn’t mean that some people shouldn’t be arrested,” he said.

To be honest, he said, he’s not a big fan of social media and doesn’t think much about it, so there’s no real policy in place. He said it was sad that some officials suffered significant abuse on their own social media pages.

“You have people who are very cool,” he said.

Emily Rizzo, spokesperson for Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, said city officials do not block or ban anyone from commenting, tagging or sharing their content.

“The city follows all guidelines of the social media community and asks anyone who posts to follow them as well when creating content,” she said. “If we become aware of the use of inappropriate language or images that violate Facebook’s community guidelines, we report the comment using Facebook’s reporting system which reports things like nudity, violence, hate speech, suicide or self-. injury or terrorism.

In those cases, city policy is to let Facebook’s reporting process step in and remove the comment if it falls into one of the main categories to protect other visitors to the page, she said. .

As for Grebien’s independently run personal page, no one is banned or blocked from it either, she said. Posts are only flagged when they go against community guidelines for social media sites, also to protect other visitors to the page.

North Smithfield City Administrator Paul Zwolenski said his position was that the city should not have official social media pages. He himself avoids Facebook, he said, and does not actively use a page that was created during his campaign last fall.

“Former administrator Ezovski thought it was best that departments didn’t have a Facebook page. As a city councilor, I agreed with him, ”he said. “This opens the city to responsibility, to incomprehension. Someone in the department can make what they believe to be an innocent and innocent statement that can be twisted and misunderstood. “

While he said he understands why some services, such as the police department, may need a social media page to disseminate information to the public, he finds that Facebook “is just a vector. of problems ”. Asked about the city’s Parks and Recreation Facebook page, he said he plans to close the page. Zwolenski later clarified that he had asked staff to turn off comments on the page to avoid possible problems.

Brown said no timetable has yet been set for the court hearing. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court.


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