San Francisco—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told the City of Vallejo that its practice of blocking people and deleting comments on social media because it doesn't like their messages is illegal under the First Amendment, and demanded that it stop engaging in such viewpoint discrimination, unblock all members of the public, and let them post comments.
In a letter today to Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan and the city council written on behalf of Open Vallejo, an independent news organization, and the Vallejo community at large, EFF said that when the government creates a social media page and uses it to speak to the public about its policies and positions, the page becomes a government forum. Under the First Amendment, the public has a right to receive and comment on messages in the forum. Blocking or deleting users’ comments based on the viewpoints expressed is unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.
“Courts have made clear that government officials, even the president of the United States, can’t delete or block comments because they dislike the viewpoints conveyed,” said Naomi Gilens, Frank Stanton Legal Fellow at EFF. “Doing so is unconstitutional. We’ve asked that all official social media pages of Vallejo officials and pages of all city offices and departments unblock all members of the public and allow them to post comments."
Open Vallejo discovered the practice of deleting comments and blocking users during an investigation of the social media practices of council members, other city officials, and the City of Vallejo itself.
EFF sided with members of the public blocked by President Trump on Twitter who sued him and members of his communications team in July 2017. We filed an amicus brief arguing that it’s common practice for government offices large and small to use social media to communicate to and with the public. All members of the public, regardless of whether government officials dislike their posts or tweets, have a right to receive and comment on government messages, some of which may deal with safety directions during fires, earthquakes, or other emergencies.
The district court agreed, ruling that President Trump’s practice violates the First Amendment. A federal appeals court upheld the ruling. Two other federal Courts of Appeals have ruled in separate cases that viewpoint discrimination on government social media pages is illegal.
We urge Vallejo to bring its social media practices in line with the Constitution, and have requested that city officials respond to our demand by Nov. 6.
For the letter:
For more on social media and the First Amendment: