No uniform policy stating Alaska politicians cannot block constituents on social media

Photo credit: Levi Brown

Last month, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that it was unconstitutional for President Trump to block users on Twitter. Judge Naomi Buchwald regarded Trump’s Twitter feed as a public forum and said his decision to block seven plaintiffs was a violation of the First Amendment.

Alaska politicians practice varying methods when handling their social media platforms; some do not resort to blocking users while others have. Others, on newer social media platforms like TikTok, have been called out for buying TikTok followers and likes, according to TikTok authority Virall.

Angela Hull, director of Correspondence and Constituent Services, said that Gov. Bill Walker’s office has a policy stating it’s not permissible for people to be blocked.

For Rep. Geran Tarr, she and her staff all have access to her social media accounts. Magdalena Oliveros, Tarr’s legislative aide, said that they are careful not to block constituents. They have only blocked one person for harassment.

Senate Majority press secretary Daniel McDonald manages the official Senate Majority Facebook page and said that while they do not block people, they do have a policy for conduct. The about page says that they may “hide or ban” those who repeatedly use obscenities, spam and advertise, among others.

“We reserve the right to hide or delete [those comments],” McDonald said. “But we don’t outright ban anybody from the page.”

He also said that it was a decision to “maintain a free and open discussion” on the account.

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Individual legislators have discretion over how their social media accounts are managed and what policies are in place, but Mike Mason, House Majority press secretary, said that it’s possible that a system wide policy could be up for discussion.

“It’s one of those things that we’ve never really spoke[n] about. There was some thought of trying to develop a caucus social media policy but it never advanced beyond an initial discussion,” Mason said.

The lawsuit began last summer when the seven Twitter users were blocked from Trump’s account after criticizing him. They were joined by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University to sue Trump.

Trump acted as a private individual, Buchwald ruled, and “no government official — including the President — is above the law.”

“The viewpoint-based exclusion of the individual plaintiffs from that designated public forum is proscribed by the First Amendment and cannot be justified by the President’s personal First Amendment interests,” she wrote.

Public officials commonly use social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, to interact with the general public and harbor political discourse. Excluding users due to their criticism or viewpoints is a violation of the First Amendment, said Buchwald.

Eric Glatt, staff attorney for American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, stressed the importance of deciding whether a social media account is a public forum or for private speech.

“Social media being a pretty new area of speech, there’s a variety of concerns we’d want to consider to help us decide — or that the court would have to use to decide whether the social media account was a public forum or private speech,” Glatt said.

Politicians should be cautious about how they handle social media accounts, Glatt also said. They should understand the difference between using an account for official business or private business.

“If they’re using social media in their capacity as representatives of the people, that would be an indication that that social media account is, in fact, part of their official work and it’s a government forum,” he said. “The Constitution would protect people from being denied access or the ability to view that forum outside very strict circumstances.”

Khristoffer Santos, an Alaskan, said he thinks Buchwald’s ruling should be universal and applied to other politicians.

“As a public servant, you have a responsibility to your constituents to communicate with them about what you do, especially if what you do concerns them,” Santos said.

“I don’t think that they should have the right to block you from using [social media] as well because while they can choose to use it, it’s also a responsibility to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to communicate with them,” he added.

Buchwald did not order Trump to unblock his followers but within the following weeks, the White House did unblock the seven Twitter users who had sued him. The administration also decided to appeal the ruling.