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Bevin blocks hundreds on social media

The Courier-Journal

Gov. Matt Bevin tells people to come straight to his social media accounts for all they need to know about what he's up to, but he doesn't mention that he'll block you if he doesn't like what you say.

Public records recently obtained by The Courier-Journal show the governor has blocked roughly 600 accounts -- many belonging to Kentuckians -- from readily accessing his official Facebook and Twitter pages, limiting their users' ability to see his posts or engage him in conversation.

A Bevin spokesman indicated the administration reserves the right to block users who post obscene material or "repeated off-topic comments," but such actions by public officials are under fire from free speech advocates who say they violate people's First Amendment rights. Across the nation, the practice has sparked a debate that includes Republican President Donald Trump, who was accused last week by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University of unconstitutionally blocking its clients on Twitter because of their viewpoints.

"The blocking of users from your Twitter account suppresses speech," the institute wrote in a letter to the president. "Your Twitter account is a designated public forum for essentially the same reasons that open city council meetings and school board meetings are."

The ACLU, which has been paying more attention to politicians blocking constituents in recent years, said the question of how government-run social media accounts should operate hasn't been settled by the courts. So far, what little case law there is says elected officials may not withhold access based on dislike of someone's viewpoint. The ACLU even threatened to take Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, to court for deleting individuals' Facebook comments and blocking people, arguing that doing so was akin to government censorship.

But Ted Jackson, a Louisville-based Republican political consultant, said there are limits on how citizens can interact with their representatives. For example, unruly people were escorted out of presidential campaign rallies last year.

"At some point, there really is no other solution but to block some of these people," he said. "There is no absolute right to disrupt and to be disorderly in these situations."

Dawn Howard knows exactly why Bevin blocked her from his official Twitter account last year. The administration encouraged people to share selfies taken with the governor, she said, so she posted her own, with a twist.

Howard, a Louisville voter concerned about Bevin's stance on abortion and reproductive rights, superimposed a picture of the governor's face on an anatomical drawing of female genitalia and tweeted it using the hashtag #BevinSelfie.

It wasn't long before Howard was blocked from @GovMattBevin. Woody Maglinger, a spokesman for the Republican governor, said Bevin welcomes "thoughtful input" from all viewpoints on social media. "Unfortunately, a small number of users misuse those outlets by posting obscene and abusive language or images, or repeated off-topic comments and spam," he said in an email. "Constituents of all ages should be able to engage in civil discourse with Gov. Bevin via his social media platforms without being subjected to vulgarity or abusive trolls."

Maglinger did not answer questions regarding who has access to the governor's social media accounts and whether Bevin or his staff determines if a post is obscene or decides to block someone. Data obtained by The Courier-Journal through open-records requests show Bevin blocks more accounts than Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton and Kentucky's constitutional officers combined.

Hampton's government Twitter account, @LtGov-Hampton, has blocked three accounts, including former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's profile. (Hampton spokesman Cody Patterson said Maglinger's statement also reflects the lieutenant governor's approach to social media.)

Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has blocked three Facebook accounts, which his office said are private companies that used his public forum to sell products. No other constitutional officers, which include the secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and agriculture commissioner, show any blocks. In Louisville, Mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat, doesn't block anyone on Facebook or Twitter, though a WFPL-FM records request showed his office had in the past blocked three Twitter accounts.

Fischer spokesman Joseph Lord said the mayor's office usually reports profane or offensive comments to the social media site itself. Then there's Jefferson County Public Schools and its outgoing superintendent, Donna Hargens. Collectively, they have blocked approximately 370 accounts. JCPS spokeswoman Allison Martin could not explain why roughly 250 accounts were blocked on Facebook and Twitter before she and her communications staff took over the school district's social media accounts in March 2016, but she said people whose accounts remain blocked can contact JCPS.

No accounts are booted for disagreeing with JCPS policy, but some are for using profanity, homophobic slurs or racially offensive comments, Martin said. Spam accounts also get blocked.

"There is nothing more transparent than live video, me talking straight to you," Bevin said during a recent Facebook Live appearance. "There is plenty of access. You will always be able to hear directly from me."

But the governor's official Facebook page has blocked more than 300 accounts, according to the records obtained by the Courier-Journal. The same goes for Twitter, where nearly 300 accounts have been blocked from following his official @GovMatt-Bevin account.

Blocking someone's account on those websites doesn't entirely prevent them from seeing the posts of the person who blocked them, but it does limit how they can access those posts and engage with that individual on that particular platform.

Some of the accounts blocked from Bevin's social media profiles belong to Kentucky voters like Cody Foster, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Kentucky who says he occasionally sent the governor critical -- but never hateful -- tweets.

Foster said he feels a lack of access to Bevin's government Twitter account limits his First Amendment rights.

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