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SALT LAKE CITY — The ACLU sent letters to Utah's congressional delegation Tuesday telling them that blocking constituents on social media violates their free speech rights.
Complaints from Utahns in recent months about being blocked on Facebook and Twitter — specifically aimed at Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah — prompted the letters, the ACLU of Utah said.
"You and your office(s) have embraced social media as a key means of communicating and interacting with constituents and the public," according to the letters posted on the ACLU website. "Because your social media pages are a public forum, your blocking of these individuals is an unconstitutional restriction on their right to free speech under the First Amendment."
Hatch's and Love's offices said Tuesday they had not received the letter. Both pointed to guidelines on their social media pages for posting messages, which include reserving the right to ban those who violate them.
"It takes a really glaring violation of our guidelines to be blocked," said Love spokesman Rich Piatt.
Love's policies include the right to delete comments that use "profanity, name-calling, threats, personal attacks or explicit, racial, obscene or other inappropriate comments, language or material. We also do not allow comments that are abusive, hateful, vindictive or intended to defame anyone or any organization."
As in traditional and nontraditional forums, whether public or private, Hatch has "common sense" rules on his Facebook page to prevent it from being used to "traffic in palpably offensive content or demonstrably false information," said Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock.
"We eagerly welcome the sharing of all viewpoints, and we are happy to engage when it's possible to answer questions or clarify confusion," Whitlock said.
"But, to be clear, we are under no obligation to allow Sen. Hatch’s Facebook page to be used as a platform for offensive content or misinformation. Anyone interested in posting such material has many alternative forums on an open and free internet."
The ACLU letter to Love cites examples of two people who have been critical of the congresswoman, including one who is running against her, being blocked from her social media accounts.
Tom Taylor, a Democrat, noticed he was blocked for a time from Twitter in May when someone tagged him in response to a Love tweet. Taylor expressed disagreement with Love's positions, but never made any personal attacks or threats, the letter says.
It takes a really glaring violation of our guidelines to be blocked.
–Rich Piatt, Rep. Love spokesman
"Though Tom was unblocked, it was wrong to block him for any period of time," the letter says.
Kathleen Ayala, who often posts "scathing and sarcastic" comments on Love's Facebook page, is still blocked, according to the letter. The ACLU says none of Ayala's posts were obscene or threatening.
"Social media is a great way to facilitate public discussion, but those discussions need to include everyone, even people who don’t agree with their representatives," said Leah Farrell, ACLU attorney.
We are under no obligation to allow Sen. Hatch’s Facebook page to be used as a platform for offensive content or misinformation.
–Matt Whitlock, Sen. Hatch spokesman
The letters advise Utah members of Congress to "cease unlawfully censoring constituents" by blocking their access to social media pages based on the viewpoints they express.
If messages do not contain obscenity, threats or other speech that can be restricted under the First Amendment, the public must be allowed to participate in any forum opened by public officials through online social media, according to the ACLU.