WOONSOCKET – A recent lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union is revealing the stark differences between local politicians’ approach to social media and forcing some of them to rethink whether they should use social media at all.
Last week, the ACLU filed suit against Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt on behalf of two city residents, claiming she violated their constitutional rights by blocking them from her Facebook page. The two men, Greg Duhamel and Thomas Dubois, were both blocked after making separate comments on her page questioning her posts.
According to Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, the case has strong legal standing based on the outcomes of similar cases around the country. In previous cases, he said, courts have ruled that public officials cannot block an individual from their page based on their views, as that would prohibit them from participating in a public forum.
“The most prominent one was against President Trump, and a federal appeals court ruled that his Twitter account was a public forum and that he could not block individuals from his feed based solely on their disagreement with his views,” he said.
This is the first time the issue has gone to court in Rhode Island, he said. In previous cases, the matter has been informally resolved after the ACLU sent a letter to the public officials involved, he said.
Baldelli-Hunt defended her actions to The Breeze last week, maintaining the Facebook page is a personal page she uses to share information with the public. She criticized the courts’ previous rulings, saying the policy allows inaccurate and vulgar statements to go unchecked on public officials’ pages.
“When people go off-topic, or when they start putting information on the page that’s inaccurate, and I respond and say that’s not accurate, these are the facts, but they continue to perpetuate the inaccurate information for their own agenda, then yes, I did block a few people that were very vulgar,” she said.
In Duhamel’s case, he was blocked after posting a now-deleted comment on one of Baldelli-Hunt’s posts accusing her of lying about her role in bringing a skate park to the city. According to the lawsuit, Dubois was blocked after he commented “When does the construction this weekend at River Island Park start?” on one of her posts in late June. That same week, critics accused her of trying to prevent a Pride event in the city by scheduling construction at River Island Art Park and a car show at the same time as the event.
“If I post about a car cruise, they’re posting about craziness that does not apply to the car cruise. You can’t even ask them politely because they have a political agenda,” she said.
“I think there’s something wrong in our world when you have to allow people to spew inaccurate information and vulgarity because you’re an elected official,” she added.
As of last Friday, Baldelli-Hunt said she had unblocked the individuals. Brown said the group still plans to move forward with the lawsuit.
“In the absence of a formal stipulation that the mayor will not block people in the future from her Facebook page for expressing their First Amendment-protected views, we do not believe the case is moot, and we will proceed with the lawsuit,” he said.
The issue has raised tough question for other local officials, who spoke with The Breeze about their approach to social media this week. In Cumberland, Mayor Jeff Mutter said he’s always been anti-censorship.
“If it’s about me, I would not report it,” he said. “You can pretty much say anything you want.”
Once criticisms move to his family or business (which he’s not involved in as mayor), he said, “I’m going to defend that as hard as anyone’s going to defend that.”
The only time that online criticism would bother him is if he thought someone was right, said Mutter, as he’s at a point in his life where very little gets under his skin. He said he’s not a fan of blocking people, and his staff also knows of that stance. There might be a case where certain comments are hidden, he said.
Mutter said he doesn’t believe there’s a policy in Cumberland on social media use, but it might be something the town needs to start thinking about.
As he sees it, said Mutter, every instance where he allows a nasty social media post to drag him in is a distraction as the clock keeps ticking on solving real problems.
North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi said he and his staff do not block anyone from town pages, including his own political page.
“That’s not saying some people shouldn’t be stopped,” he said.
To be honest, he said, he’s not big on social media use and doesn’t think about it much, so there’s no real policy in place. He said it’s sad that some officials have to endure significant abuse on their own social media pages.
“You have some people who are very fresh,” he said.
Emily Rizzo, spokeswoman for Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, said city officials don’t block or ban anyone from commenting, tagging or sharing their content.
“The city does follow all social media community guidelines and asks that anyone who posts follow those as well when creating content,” she said. “If we do become aware of the use of any inappropriate language or images that are against the community guidelines of Facebook, we do report the comment using the Facebook reporting system which flags for things like nudity, violence, hate speech, suicide or self-injury, or terrorism.”
In those cases, the city’s policy is to let the Facebook reporting process intervene and remove the comment if it falls into one of the major categories to protect others visiting the page, she said.
As for Grebien’s independently run personal page, no one is banned or blocked from that one either, she said. Posts are only reported when they go against community guidelines of the social media sites, also to protect others visiting the page.
North Smithfield Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski said it’s his position the town should not have any official social media pages. He avoids Facebook himself, he said, and doesn’t actively use a page that was created during his campaign last fall.
“Previous Administrator Ezovski thought it best that departments do not have a Facebook page. As a councilperson, I agreed with him,” he said. “It opens the town up to liability, misunderstanding. Somebody in the department may make what they believe to be an innocent, innocuous statement that can get twisted and misunderstood.”
While he said he understands why some departments, such as the Police Department, may need a social media page to get information out to the public, he finds Facebook “just a carrier of trouble.” Asked about the town’s Parks and Recreation Facebook page, he said he planned to shut the page down. Zwolenski later clarified he asked staff to turn off commenting on the page to avoid possible issues.
Brown said no schedule has been set yet for the court hearing. The lawsuit was filed in United States District Court.