By William F. Zorzi
The ACLU of Maryland is claiming a victory for free speech in the settlement of a federal lawsuit against Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. and staff members for blocking and deleting contrary political comments from his official Facebook page.
The settlement, in which Hogan and administration members deny claims asserted in the lawsuit, was announced Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, though approved Wednesday by the Board of Public Works.
As part of the settlement, the governor’s office agreed to implement a revised social media policy applicable to his Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube accounts, establish a “Constituent Message Page” as a second Facebook page, and pay a $65,000 lump sum to the four plaintiffs, Maryland residents represented by the ACLU.
“Across the country over the last year, the importance of social media to political discourse by elected officials and their constituents has been recognized with rulings from the Supreme Court and other courts,” Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, said in a statement. “We are excited to see Maryland in the forefront of protecting speech rights in this context with this model social media policy.”
The lawsuit was filed Aug. 1 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore against Hogan, Douglass V. Mayer, the governor’s director of communications, and Robert F. Windley, then the head of constituent services. The ACLU brought suit on behalf of James Laurenson, Meredith Phillips, Janice Lepore and Molly Handley.
The organization maintained that the four were among hundreds of Marylanders who reported being banned or blocked from commenting by the governor’s office on the official Facebook page. In the lawsuit, they challenged the constitutionality of Hogan and administration officials “censoring constituents’ speech” by blocking those who disagreed with the governor and deleting their comments.
“We are pleased that the ACLU has decided to drop this frivolous and politically motivated lawsuit and reach a settlement with the state,” Shareese N. Churchill, Hogan’s press secretary, said in a statement. “Ultimately, it was much better for Maryland taxpayers to resolve this than to continue wasting everyone’s time and resources in court.”