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Opinion: Court Cases Expose School Board to Twitter Terror

Appellate courts have barred elected officials from blocking abusive users on social media, but absent better site moderation, this leaves local school board members no practical way to deal with excessive harassment.

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It is a strange world where a multibillionaire in charge of one of the most influential global communications platforms can silence critics, while a mom who volunteers for a school board is expected to endure baseless personal attacks and harassment.

This is the terrifying new reality resulting from Elon Musk’s reign at Twitter and a recent important decision from a federal appeals court about the social media accounts of Poway, Calif., school board members. The implication of these two developments is a threat to democracy that no one is talking about.

First, the Poway case. Two school board members created social media accounts when they ran for office. After getting elected, they used those accounts to post about the district’s meetings, issues and decisions. They asked for and got the public’s input. Social media served as a virtual town hall.

All was well until two vocal critics, the Garniers, wrote long, often repetitive comments on the board members’ posts. The messages were not threatening, but were often off topic. Eventually, the board members blocked and used filters to prevent the Garniers from posting on their pages (the Garniers could still post on their own social media accounts). The Garniers got a lawyer and took the board members to court.

Appellate courts across the country have consistently ruled against elected officials limiting speech on their platforms. This case was no different. The Poway board members joined Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in losing similar cases.

There may not be much sympathy for Trump and Cortez, national political figures who have used social media combat to gain fame and power. However, most elected officials are not in that category. In fact, the U.S. needs half a million good people to run for local office every four years (compared to 542 people holding federal elected office).

These local elected officials are often like the Poway school board members — ordinary people with full-time jobs, who volunteer their nights on city councils and school boards to better their community. People who are increasingly being trolled and harassed.

According to the National League of Cities, 81 percent of local elected officials reported experiencing harassment, threats and violence. Social media was the most common place for these attacks.

It is particularly bad for women and people of color. An Institute for Strategic Dialogue study into social media use in the 2020 U.S. Congressional elections found that women and people of color were “far more likely” than their white and male counterparts to be abused on Twitter. Repeated studies from Amnesty International around the globe have made similar findings. Women mayors of color faced particularly high rates of harassment and threats of violence, 10 times higher than their white male counterparts.

As Musk guts the moderation policies and personnel at Twitter, the problem will only get worse. Elected officials facing personal attacks and misinformation cannot block trolls, nor can they rely on independent content moderators when speech crosses the line.

This leaves local elected officials with only bad options: absorb the abuse, abandon social media or leave office altogether. None of these alternatives support a thriving democracy.

What is particularly unfair is that these local elected officials are unique in facing these choices. Billionaires who control these social media platforms can block anyone they want for any reason. Musk, a self-proclaimed free speech advocate and now owner of Twitter, blocks critics with some frequency. Celebrities, journalists and thought leaders who can affect global debates, elections and economies can also legally block their critics — as long as they don’t run for school board or dogcatcher.

Courts are rightly loath to limit free speech about political matters. They should be. The answer then may be to increase speech. By adopting the standards articulated in defamation cases, they could extend to all public figures — those who have achieved fame or who have engaged in public debates — the current limits for elected officials on blocking people. This would put Musk, Joe Rogan and Taylor Swift in the same category as the Poway board members.

When those with real power, fame and money do not have the right to block or hide critics, one could conceive that platforms would have more incentive to address pervasive harassment and bad behavior. This could be done by changing algorithms to not reward divisive and extreme posts, fewer bots, and more accountability and less anonymity for account holders.

It feels like this is an issue worth posting about … unblocked.

Ryan Coonerty is a former mayor and current county supervisor in Santa Cruz County, Calif. He teaches law and politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and was a fellow for the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.