ACLU Urges State Legislators to Respect Free Speech Rights on Social Media

News Release: 
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
The ACLU of Washington is urging state legislators to respect the free speech rights of constituents on legislators’ social media pages. In a letter sent to all Washington legislators and the Governor (see attachment), the ACLU pointed out that lawmakers’ accounts on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter function as the modern-day equivalent of town squares.  The Constitution protects the rights of people who comment about matters of public interest in these virtual town squares to be free from censorship, the ACLU reminded legislators.
“When public officials use a Facebook page or Twitter account to connect with constituents or receive feedback on official policy or business, they can’t silence the speech of individual users simply because they disagree with the individuals’ viewpoints,” said Shankar Narayan, ACLU of Washington Technology and Liberty Director.
The action came after the ACLU received complaints that some state lawmakers are unconstitutionally censoring and/or blocking constituents from social media pages on which public policies and other matters related to their elected office are discussed, based on the viewpoints the constituents expressed.
Social media has become a recognized forum that enables government officials to communicate their messages to constituents, receive feedback from constituents, and foster debate about policies relating to the official work of those government officials.  Such virtual town squares are protected as “limited public forums” under the First Amendment.  Public officials may reasonably regulate speech on these forums to preserve their purpose – for example, limiting posts that stray from the topic at hand, are spam, or that use obscene or vulgar language or racial epithets.  But removing posts or blocking particular users entirely on the basis of the point of view expressed is never permissible under the Constitution.
The ACLU is encouraging all lawmakers to ensure they are avoiding such unconstitutional censorship on social media, and to unblock users and restore content that may have been removed based on viewpoints expressed.