By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — A city employee’s removal Wednesday of a comment from Wausau’s official Facebook page is prompting a debate over whether such action is ethical and legal.

Kati Groeschel, executive assistant to Mayor Rob Mielke, told Wausau Pilot and Review that she removed the comment, a response to employment listings, because the words were “clearly off topic and/or disruptive.” Groecshel said the city has a policy about the city Facebook page that states that the city reserves the right to delete such submissions. The policy could not be found on the city’s Facebook page early Thursday afternoon but has since been added.

The content of the removed post has not been released, but legal advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union have repeatedly taken a stance and, in some cases, legal action on the behalf of people who have been censored or blocked from posting comments on Facebook pages operated by government entities.

“Such censorship of speech based on viewpoint violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the ACLU wrote.

Facebook screen shot, Aug. 16, 2018

Courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court — have weighed in the issue in recent years, increasingly in favor of free speech on government websites.

In August 2016, the ACLU solidified agreement with the city of Beech Grove, Ind., in which two plaintiffs contended that the city violated the women’s right to free speech when officials removed critical comments from the Facebook page. The two plaintiffs received $7,412.50 in costs and attorneys’ fees, court documents state.

In the Beech Grove case, the city did have a policy in place similar to the one Groeschel referred to that read: “All city of Beech Grove social media content is subject to monitoring. User-generated posts will be rejected or removed, and the user could be blocked.” The page listed possible reasons a user might be blocked, including leveling personal attacks, using obscenities or offensive terms and promoting violence.

In the wake of the settlement, that policy has been changed. The city is no longer allowed to block users or remove their comments because of their viewpoint. Instead, the city will issue three warnings if officials think their new policy has been violated. After a third warning, the city’s attorney will block the user, according to an Indianapolis Star Tribune report.

Last year, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia sided with a plaintiff who accused a government entity of blocking him because the official was offended by his comment and not because the comment violated any neutral policy or practice. According to the New York Law Journal, the court described this as a “cardinal sin under the First Amendment,” and discussed an early U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in at length to emphasize the substantial free speech considerations.

The ACLU has also filed lawsuits against the governors of Maine, Maryland, and Indiana for blocking users from their official social media. Those actions are still pending, but promise to further clarify the scope of First Amendment rights in this context, the New York Law Journal reports.

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15 replies on “City’s removal of Facebook comment prompts legal debate”

  1. The cabal is getting more and more aggressive in silencing opposition. What’s next? I’m afraid to even ask.

    Illegal investigations, violating Constitutional rights of citizens, unfair revenge assessments, police following political opponents of the pre-approved candidate, now censoring official websites and god who knows what they will do next.

  2. Facebook accounts have limits and they removed a comment they deemed off topic and probably inappropriate and then the lawyers are called in… sad when attempts to communicate with the public result in more problems!

    But maybe this was what was necessary and nothing more… just hope people don’t overreact and go overboard with speculation and suppositions.

  3. It is my position that this was a violation of the First Amendment, a denial of free speech, and the silencing of a dissenting voice.

    The City of Wausau is not a private company, it is a public entity, and as such the rules are different.

    Packingham v. North Carolina, 137 S. Ct. 1730 (2017) has defined in its majority ruling, “[w]hile in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace—the ‘vast democratic forums of the Internet’ in general, and social media in particular.”

  4. Further, I believe that this action puts the city in a position of legal liability if the person whos rights were violated decides to bring legal action. I hope Anne Jacobson is teaching the Staff and the Mayor what the First Amenment means and how there actions in regards to it can affect the liability of the City (and by extension the taxpayer).

    1. And your law degree is from what school?

      So you are saying if I post a comment to the city’s facebook page concerning employment opportunities that says, “I makes $5,000.00 a month knitting desk doilies out of unborn wombat hair” the city has not right to remove that post? Are you kidding me?

  5. I am not kidding you. The City has no right to limit speech. The First Amendment states that, and precedents like Packingham codify it in the cyber age.

    I get your just being contrary to literally every post, but do you even read them for anything other than picking the one thing you would like to take issue with?

    I mean Stan, you believe in the First Amendment right? You believe the Government should not censor people right? You believe in Freedom of Speech?

    1. Dino, if I was to call you a #$@%%&**$##@ on this site and Shereen deleted it, as well she would, would she be trampling on my “Free Speech Rights” or simply controlling the content of this site?

  6. This county was founded with our founding fathers speaking their piece of mind , but PC culture is growing, corruption starts at the local level.

  7. Stan,

    No. She would not. One is a private company, the other is a government. Two different things.

  8. We could follow the lead of Trump and eliminate the clearance of intelligent officials that are unhappy with this actions… or is that illegal?

    Since I don’t know what was posted, then I wouldn’t offer an opinion on the local facebook page.

  9. A screenshot of the offending comment would let us know whether the city removed spam, or if they just removed a comment they didn’t like. But that would be common sense and basic social media policy for a regular workplace. Something Wausau is sorely lacking in on every front.

    2018 and the city of Wausau has no social media policy for their employees. No cell phone policy (lead to a sexting scandal between two married employees), no policy on coaching bids from contractors (lead to laws being broken and loss of Fed funding), no policy on illegal investigations (cost the city $92,000), no policy on accountability (promotions for employees that get us into deals with con-men), no policy on employee harassment (raise for an employee that regularly threatened and coerced other employees), etc.

    It’s like this city just encourages staff to do as they please to whom they please and only reacts when it becomes a problem. It’s not working well for us at all.

  10. We now know the name of the guy that was censored and what was removed.

    His comment on FB “Tom Tranetzki: “the city already did once when I questioned their river front project! My comment got censored for asking for the truth!! ”

    A Wausau citizen complained about the Riverlife debacle on the city’s FB page and the mayor’s assistant deleted the comment and called it disruptive.

    1. “disruptive” !!!! This manipulation will be going on from the city’s side as long they feel emboldened with the support of the downtown clique.
      A proper exposure of all the manipulations by the few individuals that are rearranging the downtown to serve their self interest at the expense of Tax payers, might be a starting point.
      Talking of starting point, all of the so called committees and none profits should strip their board members that have interest or close friends that placed them into these decision makings to serve the interest of the few downtown individuals. Will be nice on the next election to have a City that will work for the remaining 99% of Wausau Tax payers and tell the downtown clique manipulators enough abusing the system.

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