Increasingly, social media has become a medium for the very essence of democracy: that necessary, messy, back-and-forth dialogue.
Also increasingly, elected officials use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media pages as a public forum to announce their work or solicit input from constituents. But sometimes, Kansas legislators block individuals from commenting or even viewing content on those pages.
The most currently cited and recent case about officials blocking critics on social media came out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in January. The Court ruled that the chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors was wrong for blocking a citizen of Loudoun for his critical comments on her Facebook page, since she used that page as a governing tool and therefore engaged in “viewpoint discrimination.”
The right to criticize government is at the very heart of the First Amendment and who we are as a nation — governed by, of, and for the people.
In the Loudoun case, the critic was a constituent of the official in question. But does an official’s duties to maintain an open “public forum” end exactly at the boundary lines of their district? Or should an elected official understand that, like their own constituents, members of the public all have the same right to free speech and access to that official’s public page?
We’re still exploring just how many elected officials in Kansas block members of the public from viewing or commenting (send us a DM if you’ve had this experience). There’s Sen. Jim Denning, who notoriously and habitually hides comments on Facebook, and there’s Adam Thomas, J.R. Claeys, Blake Carpenter, and Brenda Landwehr, whom multiple individuals have reported as blocking them on Facebook and Twitter.
In the meantime, if you’re blocked, what can you do?
- Take screenshots of what you see when you go to the official’s page - scroll down to a post and find where the “Comment” option would normally be.
- Email the official. Send them the screenshots of what you see and your identifying information, such as your username. If you’re a constituent, be sure to identify yourself as such. Ask them to uphold their duty to the First Amendment and unblock you.
- Follow up with a call to the official.
If elected officials believe in the First Amendment, the 4th Circuit’s ruling should be a wake-up call for them to do more than simply follow the bare legal minimum. It shouldn’t require a ruling closer to Kansas — say, from the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit — for them to understand they have a duty to allow and even encourage free speech on their social media accounts. And Kansans should continue holding them accountable to act accordingly.