ACLU of Rhode Island Settles Suit over Facebook Censorship by Woonsocket Mayor
The ACLU of Rhode Island today announced the favorable settlement of a federal lawsuit that challenged, as a violation of the First Amendment, Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s banning of some of her critics from her Facebook page. Under a stipulation filed in court, the Mayor agreed to no longer block individuals from her page “based on First Amendment-protected viewpoints expressed.”
The lawsuit was filed in August by ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney David Cass on behalf of two Woonsocket residents, Greg Duhamel and Thomas Dubois. Both of them were blocked from commenting on the Mayor’s Facebook page after they raised questions about her official activities on it. The lawsuit argued that the censorship violated their First Amendment rights “to speak and to petition the government for redress of grievances.”
Under the joint stipulation dismissing the lawsuit, the City:
- Acknowledges that the two plaintiffs and all other accounts that the Mayor had previously banned from her Facebook page have now been unblocked;
- Agrees that no other users will be blocked from the Mayor’s Facebook page “based on First Amendment-protected viewpoints expressed”; and
- Will pay to the ACLU and its attorneys $7,000 in attorneys’ fees and court costs.
Mayor Baldelli-Hunt banned Duhamel from her Facebook page last November, after he challenged a post from the Mayor in which she attempted to claim credit for the building of a local skate park. Last month, Dubois, who had many previous interactions with the Mayor’s Facebook page, commented on a post from the Mayor to ask about construction taking place at a local park. His question was quickly deleted, and he, like Duhamel, found himself banned from the page.
Emphasizing the importance of citizen access to, and participation in, the Facebook site, the lawsuit noted that Mayor Baldelli-Hunt used her Facebook page
to announce, describe, and defend her official policies and her office’s operations; to comment on local issues; to share content produced for the City of Woonsocket; and to communicate with her constituents including responding to their comments. Because of the way she uses this account, Mayor Baldelli-Hunt’s posts have become an important source of news and information about her work. Further, the interactions associated with the posts have become important forums for speech by, to, and about Mayor Baldelli-Hunt.
Plaintiff Greg Duhamel said today: “I hope this has demonstrated that public officials should listen to the people no matter what platform they use. Not everyone can make it to town/city meetings, not everyone has the opportunity to be heard, and when it comes to local happenings in communities, I deeply believe our elected officials ought to face the critics in the community. Without them, we wouldn’t see the smaller issues which come up.”
Plaintiff Thomas Dubois added: “The First Amendment wins the day, and the value of being able to question the government through free speech remains strong. I am thankful that this issue of censorship could be resolved. Government leadership can only be effective when it listens to, and values, both supporting and dissenting opinions. I look forward to every citizen feeling comfortable to question elected representatives without fear of being censored for asking questions important to them.”
ACLU of RI cooperating attorney David Cass stated: “The agreement reached recognizes the principle that a government official’s social media account is a public forum on which viewpoint censorship is impermissible. The First Amendment protections and the fundamental principles of speech, protest and redress must be protected as technological platforms for communication advance and change the way we interact as a society. The agreement acknowledges the Mayor’s wrongful conduct in censoring the plaintiffs and others and reopens full access to the public to interact with her in her official capacity.”
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