A federal judge has denied a motion by Gov. Paul LePage to dismiss a suit filed by two Maine women who were blocked from the Republican governor’s Facebook page after they made comments critical of him.
Judge John A. Woodcock Jr. denied LePage’s motion to have the suit dismissed in a ruling issued Wednesday in United States District Court.
Woodcock found merit in the plaintiff’s suit alleging the governor’s censorship of their comments on his Facebook page violated their First Amendment right to free speech.
His ruling also means that their suit will be allowed to proceed through the courts, regardless of the fact that LePage’s second term is coming to an end and that a new governor will be elected in November.
Woodcock in his ruling pointed out that the parties do not agree on whether the Facebook page is the governor’s official page that he uses to discuss policy issues or whether it is a “holdover campaign page that the governor uses to communicate with his base and his base with him. Is it somewhere in between?”
“On a motion to dismiss a complaint, the court must assume that the social media page is the governor’s official social media page. In doing so, the court is not able to squarely reach the merits of the issues in the governor’s motion to dismiss,” Woodcock wrote.
The lawsuit was filed in August 2017 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine on behalf of the plaintiffs, Karin Leuthy of Camden and Kelli Whitlock Burton of Waldoboro. Leuthy and Burton want the courts to restore their access to LePage’s Facebook page.
In the civil suit, the ACLU argues that social media has recently become a crucial venue for public officials to disseminate news and information, and “an equally crucial opportunity for the public to express their thoughts and opinions in response to such news.”
The ACLU said the U.S. Supreme Court has found that social media platforms provide a powerful mechanism for private citizens to make their voices heard. Those platforms are revolutionary because they provide forums for direct communication between constituents and public officials that until recently was only available for people physically gathered in one place.
“By blocking access to this forum and deleting comments based on the viewpoint of the speaker, Governor LePage has violated plaintiffs’ rights to free expression and to petition the government for a redress of wrongs and grievances,” the ACLU complaint alleges.
“The recent trend of politicians silencing people on social media because they disagree with them is not just alarming, it’s also unconstitutional,” Emma Bond, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maine, said in a statement issued Wednesday in response to Woodcock’s ruling.
“Constituents expressing their views to their elected officials is a time-honored, crucial part of democracy. The methods may change, but the protections of the Constitution don’t. Free speech must by protected from government censorship on social media just as it is in any other public forum,” Bond added.
Leuthy, a freelance writer and editor, and Burton, a science and medical freelance writer, contend in their complaint that LePage uses his Facebook page to promote his political agenda, to conduct government business, and to share information with constituents. Bond said the Facebook page named in court is not his personal page. There is another page “Paul LePage” that serves as his personal page, Bond said.
In one June 2017 post from LePage, the governor wrote, “I submitted a budget more than six months ago yet Democrat politicians in Augusta are attempting to blame the Governor’s Office for a shutdown. It’s not happening.”
And in a Facebook message posted Aug. 24, 2018, LePage shared a post from the Maine Republican Party that is critical of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills. “This pretty much says it all,” LePage said in his post.
LePage was represented in the ACLU lawsuit by Patrick Strawbridge, whose law firm is based in Boston.
“The governor is studying the court’s decision and will figure out what our next step will be very soon,” Strawbridge said Wednesday.
Strawbridge described the judge’s initial decision as being the first step in what could become a prolonged court proceeding.
“Nothing has been proven,” Strawbridge said, adding that the governor has until mid-September to file a response.
Though this is the first court case involving a Maine politician, Strawbridge said similar cases have sprung up around the nation.
The most prominent case has involved President Donald Trump blocking certain individuals, including horror novelist Stephen King, from posting comments on his Twitter account.
Strawbridge declined to comment further on Woodcock’s ruling but in court documents he details the governor’s position.
“The case presents a serious threat to free speech, but the First Amendment rights at stake belong to Paul LePage, not the plaintiffs,” Strawbridge argued in his motion to dismiss dated Oct. 13.
“The plaintiffs seek an injunction restricting an elected official’s ability to choose which messages to promote on a personal Facebook page and instead requiring him to open up that page to all comers, no matter how vociferously their comments may conflict with and detract from LePage’s own message and priorities.”
“The Supreme Court and the First Circuit (court) have recognized that public officials do not sacrifice their individual rights to free speech — including the right to control the messages they promote — when they assume office.”
In a Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, file photo, Maine Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a news conference at the State House, in Augusta. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)