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.
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.