Kentucky’s Republican governor has won an initial round in his court fight over whether he violated free-speech rights by blocking people from his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove denied plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to prevent Gov. Matt Bevin from blocking anyone from his social media accounts.
The case is part of an emerging national debate about whether elected officials infringe on First Amendment rights in doing so. Bevin is a frequent user of Twitter and Facebook.
Culling his accounts
In his ruling Friday, Van Tatenhove said the governor was not suppressing speech but “merely culling his Facebook and Twitter accounts to present a public image that he desires.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky sued Bevin on behalf of two Kentucky residents who were blocked by Bevin on social media. The ACLU says more than 600 people have been blocked from seeing the governor’s postings or engaging with him there.
The ACLU, which has clashed with Bevin on abortion rights and other issues, said Saturday it would continue pressing him to adopt a “constitutionally sound” social media policy.
“At this critical time ... when important issues like the budget and pensions are being considered, we believe Kentuckians’ rights to engage in political speech and receive information from the governor’s office are being violated,” its attorney, Heather Gatnarek, said in a statement.
Bevin’s attorneys say he welcomes both positive and negative comments that stick to his chosen topics and are not obscene or abusive.
His speech, not constituents'
The judge said Bevin’s accounts are a way to communicate his own speech, not the speech of his constituents. He said “the term ‘block’ conjures an image much harsher than reality.”
“No one is being blocked from speaking on Twitter or Facebook,” Van Tatenhove wrote. “They are still free to post on their own walls and on friends’ walls whatever they want about Governor Bevin. Governor Bevin only wants to prevent some messages from appearing on his own wall, and, relatedly, to not view those messages he deems offensive.”
Requiring Bevin to allow anyone to access and post on his accounts could shut down the pages, he said. By doing so, those accounts could be flooded with internet spam, he said.
“If he wanted a truly open forum where everyone could post or comment, he could have set up his accounts to allow that, but he did not,” Van Tatenhove wrote. “And the First Amendment does not require him to do so.”
While his ruling dealt only with the request for a preliminary injunction, the judge offered a broader message regarding the lawsuit. He said the plaintiffs appear “unlikely to succeed on the merits of this case.” But he added that “their actual success on the merits remains open.”