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Facebook flap leads to an ethics complaint (seriously?) against a state senator

Author: Dan Njegomir - August 18, 2017 - Updated: August 18, 2017

State Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)

Is the Facebook face-off between state Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, and a few of his political detractors getting out of hand and maybe just a little bit silly?

Meanwhile, are we witnessing the development of the newest M.O. for ambushing political foes — social media-spawned legal actions? More on that below, but first, the latest in the Scott saga:

Three Grand Junction-area critics of the veteran lawmaker who recently accused him of nudging them out of his Facebook and Twitter accounts by hiding their comments and blocking them now have called on Senate President Kevin Grantham to launch a formal ethics investigation. A bit far-fetched, you say? The complainants seem pretty serious. Reports the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s Charles Ashby:

The three complainants say that because Scott is a duly elected official, his Twitter and Facebook accounts constitute a public forum that should be open to all.

“Senator Scott maintains his Facebook page and Twitter accounts under the aegis of his position as a state elected official for the purpose of interacting with members of the public,” the three said in their complaint. “He uses his Facebook page to share policy-related information with constituents. Senator Scott primarily uses his social media accounts as tools of governance, keeping constituents abreast of his official activities as a state senator.”

Scott told the Sentinel he only blocks inappropriate or off-topic comments. He also said:

“I look at (social media) as something that I do personally because I scour news stories, and if I think it’s something of interest to constituents who might be friending me because they don’t get The Daily Sentinel, for example, I post the story … The state doesn’t pay for this. There’s no state staffer that posts for me.”

As noted here the other day, the critics — who include a local, left-of-center blogger and a self-described “progressive” activist — cite a recent federal court ruling in Virginia that a public official had violated a local constituent’s right to free speech by taking down negative comments he had posted to the official’s Facebook page. The court found the official had acted “under color of law” in maintaining the page largely as a forum for public office, as well as in removing unwanted comments.

Yet, only days after that ruling, the same plaintiff also lost a very similar case he had brought against another local government. Same U.S District Court but a different judge.

A higher court may have to sort it all out in the end.

It’s the ruling in favor of that plaintiff, of course, that is inspiring some political activists — and not just in Colorado — to take action. In fact, it appears to have become the tactic of choice in a number of lawsuits around the country by those looking to get even with politicians they oppose. Here’s commentator Robert Knight in the Washington Times:

Several Republican governors have joined President Trump in an exclusive but growing club: They are being sued by left-wing organizations for removing persistent critics from their Facebook or Twitter pages.

In many cases, we’re talking about trolls, the people who post inflammatory, irrelevant or offensive comments. The latest to face the trolls’ wrath is Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued last Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Maine on behalf of two clients who say they were unconstitutionally blocked from Mr. LePage’s Facebook page.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin are among the targets, as well. Knight also notes:

On July 11, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed a federal suit against President Trump and two aides (former press secretary Sean Spicer and social media director Dan Scavino) in the Southern District of New York for blocking users critical of him from his private Twitter account.

Is Scott infringing on the rights of those who post comments on his own social media accounts? Perhaps the courts will resolve that one.

While they’re at it, the courts also might be asked to consider if officeholders like Scott are the targets of orchestrated trolling tactics that taunt them into reprisal and then haul them to court. More or less the digital equivalent of hounding politicians into “town hall” meetings — and then shouting them down if and when they show up.

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is the opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.