Is The Governor Allowed To Block People On Twitter?

Aug 28, 2017

Gov. Phil Scott’s staff came to work Monday morning to, among other things, a deluge of incoming Tweets from the weekend. Many were critical, and some were suggesting that the governor and his staff had broken the law.

The source of the criticism: Indivisible Vermont, an account focused on liberal politics and closely tied to the “resistance” movement that has grown in opposition to President Donald Trump, tweeted Friday night that the governor’s official Twitter account had blocked Indivisble Vermont’s account.

Discussion on social media rapidly shifted to whether it’s legal for an official government Twitter account to use Twitter’s “block” feature to prevent other users from being able to see or engage with the government account’s Twitter posts.

The block does not prevent the blocked user from viewing the governor’s tweets while the blocked user is logged out of Twitter, but it does prevent direct engagement between the two accounts.

Rep. Ben Jickling, an Independent from Brookfield, tweeted that the decision to block Indivisible Vermont was “awful petty.” Dave Silberman, one of the most vocal marijuana legalization advocates in the Vermont-Politics-Twitter scene, questioned whether the block is a violation of public records law. Secretary of State Jim Condos’ office, in a set of tweets about the issue, said that blocking other accounts is “antithetical to transparency.”

In an interview at his office Monday, Condos said that while blocking other users seems to go against open government, it’s hard to tell if it's illegal.

“In this particular instance, I don’t think the law is clear. I mean it really isn’t at this point,” he said. “I think it’s going to take a court decision.”

There are already two pending lawsuits that Condos could think of: A group of Twitter users sued President Donald Trump because he blocked them, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in early August against Maine Gov. Paul Lepage for blocking users from his official Facebook page.

Condos said the outcomes in those lawsuits might help clarify whether or not official accounts can legally block members of the public. Condos said this isn’t the first time in his career that technology has introduced confusion in defining what counts as a “public record.”

Condos was in the state Senate from 2001 to 2008. In his time there, lawmakers had to figure out how this relatively new thing called “electronic mail” fit into Vermont’s public records laws.

“When email first came out, legislatures didn’t know what to do with it. And frankly, public records laws didn’t deal with email or electronic messaging,” he said. “I was chair of [the Government Operations Committee] when the discussion came to us back in 2005 or 2006, and we had that discussion about ‘Should we put the word email in statute?’ And then our fear was, ‘Well 10 years ago email was barely in its infancy. Ten years from now, we might be using some other means of communication, we don’t know.’ So we changed it and used the words “electronic messaging” to encompass anything that might come.”

Generic language can only accomplish so much, however. Lawmakers in 2005 and 2006 had never encountered Twitter, so the public records law on the books in Vermont now isn’t completely clear. Condos said that’s partially due to the nature of the legislative process.

“Most times, legislatures are reacting to something, and it’s hard to get ahead of it especially when you’re talking technology that changes every six months,” he said.

Even without court decisions or new laws to clarify the issues, Condos said official government accounts have ways to avoid spam without limiting anyone’s access to the information presented in a government account.

Scott’s office ultimately reversed the decision and unblocked the Indivisible Vermont account and released a statement that said the account was originally blocked because staff thought it was a spam account.

The statement noted that there were seven accounts currently blocked by the official @GovPhilScott Twitter account. Later Monday, in response to a public records request from VPR, the governor’s staff released the full list of blocked accounts as of August 28 at 1:59 p.m.

Indivisible Vermont was unblocked Monday, so the list contains six accounts.

One user, @VTKiwi, cast doubt on the administration's explanation Monday afternoon. @VTKiwi, whose Twitter bio is "Some random Vermonter" remains blocked. @VTKiwi's Twitter feed includes strongly worded criticisms of Scott along with other Tweets about Vermont news and politics.

One of the users blocked by Gov. Phil Scott's official Twitter account expressed doubt Monday that the governor's staff thought it was a "spam" account.
Credit Screenshot / Twitter

At his office Monday, Condos said he wasn't sure if blocking users on social media has a place in government. He noted that it’s possible for a Twitter account to “mute” other users. That would prevent the official government account from being inundated with spam or vitriolic messages without preventing any members of the public from accessing the content posted by that official account.