Gov. Larry Hogan's efforts to avoid taking a position on President Donald Trump's ban on travel to the U.S. by citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations show a willingness to put politics above principle, and his office's efforts to scrub his official Facebook page of comments calling him on it make matters worse. Mr. Hogan has long showed a talent for using social media to shape the political debate in his favor, but he should not be acting in his official capacity to censor constituents for expressing their views, particularly on a matter of great public concern.
The Sun's Erin Cox reported on Sunday that as protesters gathered at BWI-Thurgood Marshall International Airport to protest President Trump's order the week before, Mr. Hogan's Facebook page (to be clear: not a campaign page or Change Maryland page but the one he links to from the official website of the governor's office) was deluged with comments urging him to publicly join the opposition. Staff members in the governor's office (again, not campaign workers but public employees paid by tax dollars) deemed the comments as spam and deleted them. Moreover, people who sent the comments found themselves banned from further posting on the governor's page.
In an interview Monday, Hogan Communications Director Douglass Mayer said the office's general practice is not to erase comments critical of the governor, but he defended the action as necessary to maintain a positive experience for the page's nearly 150,000 followers. It's not the first time this has happened; Mr. Mayer says the governor's office deleted comments from what he describes as a coordinated campaign by "anarchists" after the 2015 Baltimore unrest. In the current instance, the governor's office was not the one seeking to stifle conversation, he said, but it was the "coordinated effort to overrun the governor's page" that was limiting debate. "We encourage an open, diverse public debate on the page, but when a clear, coordinated effort is occurring that we believe seeks to change that debate by pointing it in one direction, we're not going to allow it," he said.
Excuse us, but isn't a "coordinated campaign" to influence the state's chief executive precisely the same thing, to borrow a phrase from the First Amendment, as "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances"? If Governor Hogan held a town hall meeting and a large number of people showed up in a coordinated effort to persuade him to take a particular position on a valid issue of public concern, would he kick them out, strike their participation from the record and ban them from speaking out in the future? That's the equivalent of what's going on here.
We understand the need to maintain some basic standards of civil discourse on public Facebook pages. The Sun's policy for its Facebook pages, for example, is to take down comments that violate its terms of service, which focus on abusive and/or offensive language. Commenters are occasionally banned for repeated violations of those terms. It's reasonable to expect that officials would have a mechanism to uphold similar standards on government pages, much as someone who makes abusive, profane of threatening comments might be escorted from a public meeting. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Brian Frosh said his office follows a policy of deleting comments that contain obscene language and particularly those that are threatening toward other commenters. But Mr. Frosh's office does not delete comments solely because they reflect a coordinated effort by a particular group, she said.
To be sure, there are other ways to contact the governor to convey an opinion on this or another matter. Within days of the Trump administration's announcement of the travel ban, Mr. Hogan's office had received thousands of phone calls about it, mainly from people opposed to the executive order. (The phone number for the governor's office is 410-974-3901.) You can email him through his website (governor.maryland.gov/contact-the-governors-office) and send him actual mail (100 State Circle, Annapolis, MD 21401-1925). He's also on Twitter (@LarryHogan).
But Facebook has particular salience, for several reasons. Comments there are visible for all those who look at Mr. Hogan's page, so they help shape the public debate in a way old fashioned letters to the governor, which landed in a file drawer somewhere, did not. Each Facebook comment is linked to an identifiable and named individual or entity. And we know Facebook is important to Mr. Hogan; it was crucial tool in his effort to build a following in advance of the 2014 election. What Mr. Hogan is doing in terms of deleting comments is clearly not in the public's interest, and to the extent that it insulates him from understanding issues that animate his constituents so much that they join in a "coordinated effort," it's not in his interests either.