Maine Gov. LePage Illegally Censoring His Facebook Page, ACLU Claims

According to the ACLU, LePage uses the page in his official capacity to perform government business, and blocking people who disagree with the governor constitutes viewpoint discrimination and government censorship.

by Scott Thistle, Portland Press Herald, Maine / August 9, 2017
The Facebook issue of Maine Gov. Paul LePage (center) echoes the legal dispute over President Trump's use of Twitter and his practice of blocking people from accessing his tweets. Flickr/U.S. Department of the Interior

(TNS) -- The ACLU of Maine filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against Gov. Paul LePage over a Facebook page that promotes LePage's policies but has blocked access by some citizens and removed comments by others.

The lawsuit follows a letter to LePage from the ACLU asking LePage to stop censoring comments on the "Paul LePage, Maine's Governor" Facebook page. LePage has said he doesn't control the content on the page, which is run by his top political adviser, Brent Littlefield.

The ACLU sued in U.S. District Court in Portland on behalf of two Maine women who have had their comments deleted and been blocked from further commenting on the page, the ACLU said in a statement.

According to the ACLU, LePage uses the page in his official capacity to perform government business, and blocking people from the page who disagree with the governor constitutes viewpoint discrimination and government censorship in violation of the U.S. and Maine constitutions.

"Social media has quickly become a crucial tool for constituents to express their opinions to public officials," said Meagan Sway, attorney for the ACLU, in a prepared statement. "Free speech must be protected from government censorship on Facebook just as it is in any other public forum."

The complaint argues that the "Paul LePage, Maine's Governor" Facebook page is an official page because, among other things, the governor and his staff use the page to share information such as official announcements and press releases; the page is described as "Paul LePage's official page" in the "About" section; the page has been "verified" by Facebook as the governor's page (which requires his approval); on July 24 the page was linked to the governor's official Maine.gov website (the link has since been removed); and the governor has posted to the Facebook page several times in his official capacity.

The complaint also notes that, as an official Maine government page, "Paul LePage, Maine's Governor" is bound by a state policy on the use of social media for state business, which does not discuss deleting comments or blocking users simply because they are critical of a government official.

LePage's office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Littlefield, the Washington, D.C.-based political consultant who operates the page, maintains that it is not an official page of the governor's office, although at one point it was linked to LePage's state government page for his office.

But there are close ties between the purportedly unofficial page and LePage's official communications.

For example, LePage himself has boasted about his use of the page, especially its live video-streaming features, as a way to bypass the news media in Maine. He told radio talk show hosts that he used the feature during recent state budget negotiations to bring his message directly to Maine residents.

LePage appeared in Facebook Live videos from the governor's mansion twice during those negotiations in July. The videos were shared to the page and are still posted there. Facebook itself has verified the page, meaning the company has confirmed that the page does represent LePage. LePage's former press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said the videos were shared from what was her official state page, but the governor's staff was not involved in the other page, which has about 41,000 followers.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Littlefield said a number of different people, whom he would not identify, were responsible for the Facebook page in question.

"Government employees are not the administrators of that page," Littlefield said.

A review of recent posts and comments on "Paul LePage, Maine's Governor" Facebook page also shows that not all negative comments towards LePage are being deleted or blocked although the vast majority of comments are favorable towards LePage. In one comment on a post about LePage's criticism of U.S. Sens. Angus King, Susan Collins and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, LePage says, "Instead of focusing on the needs of hard-working Mainers, Senators Collins and King recruited another out-of-touch former Senator, who had no experience with the disastrous effects (welfare) Medicaid expansion had on our state, to criticize me." The statement prompted one Facebook user to post: "Medicaid isn't welfare moron."

The ACLU of Maine has also pointed out that if LePage is not making the posts, then somebody else appears to have been authorized to speak as the governor himself, because a number of the posts are written in the first person, as though LePage is speaking directly to those who follow him on Facebook.

But LePage or those who are running the page may have some right to limit or delete comments that are obscene or beyond the rules presented by Facebook for use, according to Clay Calvert, a University of Florida professor, attorney and First Amendment expert. "Facebook's terms of use would likely govern that, thereby giving a government official a legitimate reason to remove content," Calvert wrote in an email message to the Press Herald.

Calvert said public officials like LePage may have a responsibility to allow the posting of views that are contrary to their own if they are using social media to conduct official business or issue official statements.

Calvert said he welcomed the ACLU lawsuit.

"This represents an extremely significant and positive trend for citizens everywhere in the digital age," he wrote. "It takes more than just a single lawsuit to spark a movement for access -- we're seeing that spark now. Whether it ultimately lights a fire with the courts will be the real test. Let's hope it does."

The LePage Facebook issue echoes the legal dispute over President Trump's use of Twitter and his practice of blocking people from accessing his tweets or being able to respond to him. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University in New York, joined by seven individual Twitter users, sued Trump for blocking a number of accounts whose owners replied to his tweets with comments that criticized, mocked or disagreed with him.

A federal court in Virginia ruled in July on a case with parallels to both the LePage and Trump cases. The Virginia court concluded that the First Amendment's free speech clause prohibits officeholders from blocking social media users on the basis of their views.

That case involved a chairwoman of a county board of supervisors who ran a Facebook page to keep in contact with her constituents, according to a report in Slate Magazine.

In its declaratory judgment, the court found that Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall inappropriately banned a citizen from commenting on her "Chair Phyllis J. Randall" Facebook page for 12 hours, in violation of the First Amendment.

Maryland's Republican Gov. Larry Hogan was also sued last week by the ACLU of Maryland for blocking Facebook users from posting on his official page, according to the Washington Post.

The Maine ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of Karin Leuthy of Camden and Kelli Whitlock Burton of Waldoboro, both of whom have had their comments deleted and their accounts blocked from further posting on the official "Paul LePage, Maine's Governor" Facebook page, despite none of their comments violating the state's official social media commenting policy.

"The governor should stop censoring people in public forums just because he disagrees with them," said Leuthy. "Maine will be a stronger state if those in power listen to people from across the political spectrum."

LePage's office did not respond to the ACLU's initial letter, but instead referred the public and the media to a response posted on the Facebook page in question.

 

©2017 Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.