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August 1, 2017

First Amendment Rights of Constituents Violated When Contrary Views Targeted for Censorship

BALTIMORE, MD - Championing the First Amendment rights of Marylanders to communicate with their elected officials using social media, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland filed suit today in federal district court, challenging Governor Larry Hogan's policy of censoring constituents' speech on his official Facebook page by blocking those who disagree with him and deleting their comments. The question of constituent censorship on social media has become a pressing issue across the country, including a lawsuit against President Donald Trump for blocking those expressing unwanted views from his Twitter page. The ACLU lawsuit, filed on behalf of four individuals who have been censored by Governor Hogan, seeks a permanent injunction against the Governor's unconstitutional social media policy as enforced by the Governor and his staff.

"The highest purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the right of Americans to engage in political speech and to petition the government to address their concerns," said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland. "As the Supreme Court ruled in June, and a federal judge in Virginia echoed just last week, social media has become a vital means for constituents to communicate with their elected officials. It violates both the First Amendment and Maryland's own social media guidelines for government officials to block out any voices of dissent or those simply raising questions about positions taken by public officials sworn to serve."

Governor Hogan has embraced social media as a key means of communicating with his constituents, often posting and responding to comments personally.  Douglas Mayer, the governor's director of communications and a defendant in this case, has explained that Governor Hogan "views social media, especially Facebook, as a way to talk directly to the people of this state without the interference of traditional media," and that the governor "believes that it's important to have that kind of direct contact and access with people who vote and pay taxes and live in this state."

The plaintiffs in the ACLU's lawsuit have all been constituents who wished to have that kind of direct access to Governor Hogan to respectfully express their views. But their viewpoints were censored in a targeted way and their political expression on the Governor's page was blocked. The plaintiffs did not know each other prior to the Governor's censorship, and did not coordinate their free speech activities among themselves or with any particular group. They expressed a variety of viewpoints on Governor Hogan's Facebook page, from trying to draw the Governor's attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, to asking him to take a public position on the Trump administration's Muslim ban, to speaking out about Maryland and federal education policy.

Said ACLU client, Meredith Phillips: "I am a Democrat who crossed party lines to vote for Governor Hogan. I posted a comment to the Governor's official Facebook page about the Muslim ban, asking him to make a public statement. My comment was deleted and I was blocked from the page. From the moment it happened, I couldn't believe Governor Hogan would block people who disagreed with him, but who weren't rude or threatening. Deleting any comment from constituents that doesn't praise or agree with Governor Hogan is a violation of free speech." 

In February, the ACLU wrote to Governor Hogan on behalf of seven Marylanders who were censored by the Governor and/or his staff when they attempted to question or challenge his policy positions on the Facebook page. The Governor never responded directly to the ACLU's letter, but his staff told the media that they unblocked most of the individuals identified in the letter. However, several of those restored constituents found themselves again blocked after trying to post on the Governor's page.

The plaintiffs are represented by pro bono attorneys Lisa Zycherman and Christopher Savage of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, and ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon.