Social media blocking is one of the most common complaints ACLU of WV receives
Here’s what to do if a public official has blocked you on social media
Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia say politicians blocking constituents on social media accounts for an average of three legal intake complaints each month and the same number of informal email and social media complaints. (Chris McGrath | Getty Images)
Has a public official blocked you on social media? You’re not alone.
Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia say social media blocking is one of the most common complaints their office gets, accounting for an average of three legal intake complaints each month and the same number of informal email and social media complaints.
The ACLU of West Virginia filed a lawsuit last week against a Jefferson County commissioner who it says blocked a constituent on Facebook because of her views.
ACLU legal director Aubrey Sparks said the issue will only become more important as more public officials use the platform as an extension of their office.
“As social media becomes more and more a primary way that politicians and elected representatives and public servants communicate with the public about what they’re doing, it becomes more important for people who have access to those spaces, not only to just get that information, but to engage with the people who represent them,” Sparks said. “Because there’s so much to be learned about what your representatives do and don’t support or how your views may or may not align with them.”
Alexa Ramirez, a legal fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said courts are still figuring out when the First Amendment applies to social media accounts. It doesn’t always, she said.
“But when a public official uses a social media account as an extension of their official duties or their official office, then the public official is bound by the First Amendment,” Ramirez said.
Courts take into account several factors that all generally relate to whether the person is using the account in their role as a public official, Sparks said.
“So [if] it says their title on it, it lists their government phone number, their government address — something like that, [shares] information about the policies they support or don’t support or what actions they want to take and not — then they can’t ban people on the basis of that person’s protected speech,” Sparks said.
That doesn’t mean there are no rules for commenting on a public official’s page, Sparks said. If a public official has a policy against harassment or the use of certain language, that’s more of a legal gray area, she said.
“But if they post ‘I support this bill,’ and you comment ‘can you explain why?’ and you’re blocked, that’s a pretty straight forward violation because you’re expressing your opinion in a way that’s hard to imagine would violate any reasonable policy,” she said.
What should you do if you notice you’re blocked?
The organization has a toolkit with a flow chart for helping people to determine if their First Amendment rights have been violated.
If after reviewing the ACLU’s toolkit, you think your rights have been violated, the ACLU encourages people to take screenshots of the account that blocked you, and your posts if they’re still visible or archived.
Then, contact the representative who blocked you by email or phone first and ask to be unblocked. According to the ACLU, this resolves the issue about half the time. If it doesn’t work, the ACLU has a non-legal form letter template that people can use to send a letter demanding they be unblocked.
If all else fails, the ACLU has a form to fill out for legal assistance, but it notes the organization has a small staff and only takes on a few cases each year.
“As much as we’d love to be able to represent everyone, anytime their rights are violated, we have limited resources,” Sparks said. “And so that’s not something that we’re capable of doing right now. And so right now we direct people to the toolkit and to this letter that they can send to their representatives when they’re blocked.” GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
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