Blocked By The Governor? ACLU Challenges Scott's Facebook Policy

Jun 21, 2018

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont released a letter Wednesday challenging Gov. Phil Scott's social media policy.

Specifically, the organization is opposed to what they allege is the governor's practice of deleting comments critical of the administration and blocking certain users who repeatedly post such comments.

One of the people who was blocked is John Dodge, a guns rights activist from Newbury. Dodge used to be a fan of Scott and strongly supported his run for governor in 2016.

"I promoted him in all the gun groups," Dodge said.

Then, in April of this year, Scott signed several gun control bills into law.

Along with other Vermonters opposed to the new gun regulations, Dodge went to the governor's official Facebook page to air his grievances. Dodge said he believes his posts were confrontational, but not out-of-bounds.

"I called him Flip-Flop Phil," Dodge said. "But I didn't swear at him. And I didn't call him slur names or anything that could be deemed as bigoted or hateful."

Sometime later, Dodge realized that some of his comments had been deleted from the page. Then, he was blocked — meaning he could view the page, but not make comments or like posts.

"We're relying on Supreme Court precedent that goes back decades and decades saying that public officials cannot block people, ban them from public forums, based on what they might say." — Jay Diaz, ACLU of Vermont

The governor's Communications Director Rebecca Kelley said the administration's social media policy is designed to protect "civil dialogue."

"To be clear," Kelley said, "comments are only deleted when they are abusive, obscene, or hateful, and users are only blocked if there is a pattern of this behavior."

Dodge, though, said he believes his comments didn't violate this policy. He's not alone — the ACLU is currently working with a number of people who say their comments were deleted or that they were blocked unfairly.

ACLU attorney Jay Diaz calls the governor's official Facebook page a public space, and said blocking access to it infringes on free speech rights.

"We’re relying on Supreme Court precedent that goes back decades and decades saying that public officials cannot block people, ban them from public forums, based on what they might say," Diaz said.

Recent court cases seem to support the ACLU's position. In May, a federal court in New York ruled that President Donald Trump could not block people on Twitter, because the president's account, in effect, serves as a public forum.

Back in Vermont, Kelley said the Scott administration is open to working with the ACLU to redefine its social media policy.

This is not the first time that Scott has taken heat over his social media practices. In 2017, he blocked the liberal activist group Indivisible Vermont on Twitter. His office later unblocked the group, saying that it had been a mistake.