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‘Give me a call’: How Spokane-area politicians deal with uncivil comments on their social media accounts

July 12, 2019 Updated Fri., July 12, 2019 at 1:18 p.m.

A Tuesday federal court ruling that President Donald Trump was in violation of the First Amendment when he blocked a critic on Twitter could have implications for all elected officials’ social media accounts.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said he sought legal advice when he was setting up the Facebook page for his mayoral campaign and the resounding answer was to block no one.

“You run for public office, and so blocking people on a campaign page seems a bit nontransparent,” Stuckart said.

Though Stuckart does not block, he said some posts can cross a line, including a meme of him dressed as Hitler that originated during his 2015 campaign.

“People will randomly post that on my campaign page, and quite frankly, to me, that’s stepping over a line of criticism of policies or criticism of me and really turning into some pretty abusive,” he said.

There’s a possibility this issue might be seen in the Supreme Court, said Cornell Clayton, director of the Washington State University Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service.

“What’s interesting is, for one thing, I think it’s one of the first decisions to apply factors associated with public forums to social media,” Clayton said.

Clayton said social media, if considered a public forum, would be much like the common space at Washington State University.

“If we decide we’re going to allow certain groups to use that space to protest or to engage in free speech-type activities, you can’t then have content-based restrictions that would preclude other groups from using that same space,” Clayton said.

Jared Powell, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, said there are social media policies posted on McMorris Rodgers’ government Facebook page that govern whether someone is blocked.

“We haven’t done it in more than a year, maybe two,” Powell said. “Whenever we block someone, it’s not a permanent thing, it’s something that we do until we can really have a conversation with them about proper etiquette.”

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., does not block anyone on her social media accounts, spokesman Reid Walker said.

In light of the ruling, Spokane City Councilman Breean Beggs made a request to the city legal department on Wednesday to provide the council with training “so that everyone on council and council staff all have the same information about what the expectations are legally.”

Beggs does not have anyone blocked on his official city page or campaign page, though he does have a couple people blocked on his personal page.

“It wasn’t a particularly unexpected ruling,” Beggs said. “I’ve treated my social media as if that ruling has been in place for as long as I’ve been on the council.”

City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who has never blocked anyone, also said if someone crossed a line, she would consult the city attorney for advice.

Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said he has never felt the need to block anyone and wouldn’t do so because he wants to encourage public discourse.

“I had a campaign-related social media account outside of my personal one for the first time recently, and I would say the topics of conversation were controversial, and people have opinions and express them,” Ormsby said.

Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, has blocked reporters, the Seattle Times reported in July 2018. Attempts to reach him on Thursday was unsuccessful.

Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke said she does not block anyone on her city Facebook account, but it was not always this way. Burke said the city lawyers told her she could block people in certain cases when she started, but the policy changed.

“It’s kind of a weird place because I definitely feel like people should have free speech and be able to comment on things, but there’s just been a couple people who I’m scared of and I can’t block them,” Burke said.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, has also blocked people in the past but has since unblocked them.

“That was something I didn’t do lightly, and it was because that person was attacking other members on my Facebook page with some pretty violent, inappropriate stuff,” Riccelli said.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, has blocked people on Facebook as well.

“I want to hear from folks no matter what they have to say,” Billig said in an email. “I would only consider blocking a commenter or hiding comments on my page if they engaged in offensive speech, attacked another commenter on something other than policy substance or if someone hijacks a conversation to try to talk about a completely different topic.”

City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she does not block people, but when someone says something offensive, she posts her cellphone number and suggests they give her a call.

“It’s interesting, nobody ever calls me,” Stratton said. “So it just tells me people would rather be bullies on Facebook than picking up the phone and setting up some time to do it to your face.”

Stuckart also noticed a big difference between what people say online and in person.

“I think we’re at 9,000-plus doors so far, and the extremes that you see on social media are very different than what you hear from people when you knock on their doors,” Stuckart said. “I think it’s skewed the discourse.”

City Councilwoman Candance Mumm only has a personal Facebook account and does not post anything related to city business.

“City Council has its own, and so I don’t have a City Council Twitter,” Mumm said. “I did when I was running for office, and so I’m a little different in that way.”

Editor’s note: This story has been changed on July 12, 2019 to add information from Billig received after time of publication.

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