Maryland, ACLU settle lawsuit over deleted comments on Gov. Hogan's Facebook page

Gov. Larry Hogan will keep his official Facebook page open to critical viewpoints under a settlement reached with the ACLU of Maryland and several individuals who claimed in a federal lawsuit that they were banned or blocked for expressing opinions contrary to those of the Republican governor.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said Monday the settlement was a “victory for the free speech rights of constituents.” The agreement includes a $65,000 payment by the state to the plaintiffs and requires Hogan to rewrite his social media policies.

But a spokeswoman for Hogan contested the advocacy group’s characterization of the agreement.

“We are pleased that the ACLU has decided to drop this frivolous and politically motivated lawsuit and reach a settlement with the state,” said a Hogan spokeswoman, Shareese DeLeaver Churchill. “Ultimately, it was much better for Maryland taxpayers to resolve this than to continue wasting everyone’s time and resources in court.”

The ACLU of Maryland and four state residents challenged Hogan’s policies governing his Facebook and other social media accounts in a federal lawsuit filed Aug. 1 that accused his administration of unconstitutionally censoring their speech.

Under the settlement, the governor’s office continues to deny any liability or violations of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

The suit alleged that Hogan had violated the law by censoring people who disagreed with him by blocking them from posting their opinions or by deleting critical comments. The ACLU and its affiliates across the country have been filing similar lawsuits against public officials, including President Donald J. Trump, for blocking or censoring comments.

According to the Maryland ACLU, Hogan’s office agreed to establish a new social media policy to govern his use of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube accounts. The policy is to bar discrimination based on an individual’s viewpoint and allow commentary on his Facebook page on any topic he has addressed.

Hogan will have to create a second Facebook page that will serve as a public forum for constituents to bring issues to the governor’s attention, the ACLU said. The organization added that the governor will create an appeals process for those who believe their postings have been wrongfully deleted or blocked.

But Hogan’s office says it has had a social policy in place for more than a year that permits free expressions of opinions contrary to the governor’s viewpoints.

An old social media policy — included as part of the ACLU’s original complaint — appears significantly different from the one now on Hogan’s Facebook page.

For example, the old policy contained the statement that “comments may be removed or access may be restricted at any time without prior notice or without providing justification.”

That language is gone from the new policy.

Last year the governor’s staff deleted comments requesting that Hogan condemn Trump’s travel ban for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Hogan’s staff labeled the comments spam and banned posters from making future comments. That frustrated several posters who said they were not part of an organized group.

Hogan’s office said at the time that about 450 people had been banned from posting over a two-year span from 2015-2017. Half of those people were banned for what the staff deemed a coordinated political “spam” attack and half were banned for using abusive language.

Hogan’s Facebook page is followed by nearly 210,000 people, and his Twitter handle has 54,500 followers, according to the profiles on each account.

Meredith Curtis Goode, a spokeswoman for the state ACLU, said the settlement comes with a $65,000 payment to the organization and the plaintiffs that was approved by the Board of Public Works last week.

The Maryland Democratic Party attempted to link Hogan’s Facebook efforts to those of Trump’s Twitter habits.

“Larry Hogan’s Facebook habit is just as bad as Donald Trump’s Twitter addiction, and they are equally thin-skinned. Now Maryland taxpayers are footing the bill,” Maryland Democratic Party Chair Kathleen Matthews said in a statement. “If Gov. Hogan isn’t able to handle criticism, he’s in the wrong line of work.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°