Coffman-Carroll-Coffman-2-W-1024x757.jpg

Ernest LuningErnest LuningSeptember 7, 20179min141

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman expressed optimism Wednesday that the GOP-controlled House will take up legislation to protect young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children from deportation, although the Aurora Republican also stressed that a rare maneuver he initiated earlier in the week might still be necessary to force a vote.


Screen-Shot-2017-08-18-at-1.22.23-AM.png

Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirAugust 29, 20173min780

Remember Colorado state Sen. Ray Scott’s face-off on Facebook a few weeks ago with some critics who complained that he had blocked them and hidden their comments? They wound up filing an ethics complaint with the legislature against the veteran Grand Junction lawmaker, citing in part a recent federal court ruling in Virginia that a public official in that state had violated a local constituent’s right to free speech by taking down negative comments posted to the official’s Facebook page.

The court found in that case that 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.

Here’s an update: The two rulings, seemingly in conflict, are now both being appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond.

As we pointed out before, Scott isn’t alone in taking heat from detractors who assert a First Amendment right over his  presence on social media platforms. Activists nationally appear to have embraced the tactic in taking on politicians with whom they differ. They’ve hauled several governors and even the president to court with similar claims.

Will the court uphold the right of elected officials like Scott to manage their own Facebook and Twitter accounts as they fit? Or, will public service mean that what was once an officeholder’s personal space is now a public forum?

 


Screen-Shot-2017-08-18-at-1.22.23-AM.png

Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirAugust 18, 20177min1030

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.


iStock-498632739.jpg

Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirAugust 16, 20176min1130

Remember the face-off over “fake news,” pitting a Colorado state senator against the daily newspaper in Grand Junction? The grudge match between the two has resurfaced; only, this time, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel is quibbling with the way Republican state Sen. Ray Scott manages his Facebook account. Notably, he is accused of deleting some derogatory comments — which the newspaper, pointing to a recent court ruling back east, says might be unconstitutional for a public official.

In the previous dustup, Daily Sentinel Publisher Jay Seaton had threatened legal action against Scott for calling the paper’s content “fake news.” Seaton backed down a couple of months later. This time, the newspaper settled for publishing a news report on the accusations against Scott, followed by an editorial chiding the senator:

Scott has to understand that if he’s going to use social media as a vehicle to express his political views or advocate for specific government action, he’s turned his Facebook and twitter accounts into public forums where certain types of speech enjoy constitutional protection. If he wants to avoid legal hot water, he either has to shut down those accounts or tolerate what his constituents have to say, whether he likes it or not.

The specter of “legal hot water” arises from a recent federal court ruling in Virginia that held 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. The ruling is of course turning heads among elected officials because social media, like a private Facebook or Twitter account, had been thought personal and inviolable even if owned by a public official.

The broader implications of the case have yet to be sorted out. It’s probably worth noting one distinction between the Virginia case and the accusations against Scott: The Virginia official’s page was partially run, and posted to, by an aide who was a paid county staffer. The court referenced the aide as a factor in its ruling.

More telling, just days later, the same plaintiff — he’s a well-known local gadfly — lost a very similar case he had brought against another local government; same court but a different judge, who wrote:

“…it cannot be said that such a First Amendment right was a ‘clearly established’ right, ‘of which a reasonable person would gave known … These Individual Defendants are therefore entitled to qualified immunity for the actions they took against Plaintiff with respect to their Facebook pages.”

A local newspaper report surmised “The ruling by Judge Anthony J. Trenga seems to contradict a ruling last week by Judge James C. Cacheris in the same federal circuit…” The report also quoted the county attorney, who concluded: “An appellate court will need to clarify how and when social media constitute public forums.”

The Sentinel’s news report last week included interviews with some locals who said their comments were taken down from Scott’s Facebook account; Scott told the newspaper he’d withhold comment until getting legal input on the Virginia case’s implications, if any, for a circumstance such as his.

Whatever the lawyers, and probably the appellate courts, eventually conclude about this novel court ruling, it could have a chilling effect on public officials’ use of their private social media accounts for public purposes. Meanwhile, it definitely has had a chilling effect on relations between Scott and his hometown paper.