The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Larry Hogan Tuesday, accusing his administration of unconstitutionally censoring constituents' speech by blocking some Facebook posters and deleting their comments from his official page.
"The highest purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the right of Americans to engage in political speech and to petition the government to address their concerns," Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, said in a statement.
The Baltimore Sun reported in February that the governor's staff deleted comments requesting that Hogan condemn President Donald J. 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 have been banned from posting over the past two years. Half of those people were banned for what the staff deemed a coordinated political "spam" attack and half were banned for using abusive language.
"This frivolous lawsuit is completely without merit, a waste of taxpayer dollars, and has more to do with partisan politics than anything else," Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said Tuesday. "The governor's office has a very clear social media policy, and we will continue to remove all hateful and violent content and coordinated spam attacks to foster an open and constructive dialogue.
"Ultimately, with all of the challenges we face in this country and across the globe, we can all agree that the ACLU should be focusing on more important issues than monitoring Facebook pages."
The governor said in February that the deletions were justified.
"We have about a million people a week on our Facebook page and an average of four of them are deleted per week. It's less than one-half of 100,000th of 1 percent," he said in an interview at the time. "Many of the people on there are putting hateful, rude, profane death threats and racist comments and sometimes just repetitively spamming from outside groups outside the state all over the page so that the normal people who look at it can't enjoy it.
"We're going to continue the process that we've always done and we're not changing anything."
The ACLU's suit seeks a permanent injunction against the governor's policy.
"As the Supreme Court ruled in June, and a federal judge in Virginia echoed just last week, social media has become a vital means for constituents to communicate with their elected officials," Jeon said. "It violates both the First Amendment and Maryland's own social media guidelines for government officials to block out any voices of dissent or those simply raising questions about positions taken by public officials sworn to serve."
One of the ACLU's clients in the suit, Meredith Phillips, of Columbia, said she voted for Hogan.
"I am a Democrat who crossed party lines to vote for Governor Hogan," she said in a statement."I posted a comment to the Governor's official Facebook page about the Muslim ban, asking him to make a public statement. My comment was deleted and I was blocked from the page. From the moment it happened, I couldn't believe Governor Hogan would block people who disagreed with him, but who weren't rude or threatening. Deleting any comment from constituents that doesn't praise or agree with Governor Hogan is a violation of free speech."