Is Deleting Public Comments on a Fire Department Facebook Page Government Censorship?

Today’s burning question: Can we delete comments that we find offensive on our fire department’s Facebook page?

Answer: That question is actually a heck of a lot more complicated than you might imagine… just ask the City of Beech Grove, Indiana. The city is facing a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Indiana on behalf of two women who claim that their posts on the Beech Grove Police Department’s Facebook page as well as the city’s Facebook page have been deleted and the women blocked from making further posts.

The suit was filed June 29, 2016 in US District Court in Indianapolis and seeks injunctive relief for what the women allege is a violation of their First Amendment rights. At the heart of the controversy is whether removing content from a governmenal entity’s social media site is a form of government censorship prohibited by the First Amendment. The basics of the dispute are relatively simple to grasp, and very well explained in the complaint:

  • Kymberly Quick and Deborah Mays-Miller are residents of Beech Grove who are active in the community’s crime watch program.
  • Because of their interest in crime awareness and prevention, they follow the Beech Grove Police Department’s Facebook page, and post comments both praising the Police Department and, on occasion, commenting on what they view as inaccurate reporting of crime statistics, among other things.
  • Quick and Ms. Miller also post comments on the City’s Facebook page.
  • On multiple occasions, the City and the Police Department have removed Ms. Quick and Ms. Mays-Miller’s comments and those of other members of the public that are critical or pose questions to the Department, or are deemed negative or unpleasant by the City.
  • They have also blocked Ms. Quick and Ms. Mays-Miller from posting future comments because of the viewpoint of their past postings.
  • The City and the Police Department’s policy and practice of censoring public comments on their Facebook pages on the basis of their viewpoint is a violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and it must be enjoined.

The city has a very clear “terms of use” policy on their Facebook page that prohibits a laundry list of postings that users are warned will be deleted, including spam, posts containing “obscenities or offensive terms,” personal attacks, and the like. The complaint alleges that the city’s action in removing Ms. Quick’s and Ms. May-Miller’s posts and then blocking them was done based on their viewpoints. As explained in the complaint:

  • The defendant’s removal of the plaintiffs’ comments on the BGPD and City of Beech Grove Facebook pages and blocking of plaintiffs’ ability to make future comments violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and the defendant’s policy and practice of removing public comments because of their viewpoint and blocking users from future comments on the basis of the viewpoint of past postings is a violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Quick and May-Miller want the court to enjoin the city from blocking them and removing their comments. According to the IndyStar, the city has opted to remove their Facebook pages in response to the suit.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Quick v Beech Grove

So to more fully address the burning question, a governmental entity with a social media presence can adopt a reasonable “terms of use” policy, and can delete comments and block users who violate the policy. However, the “terms of use” policy cannot expressly limit the viewpoints of posters (ie prohibit “negative comments”), nor can government officials use an otherwise valid “terms of use” policy to – in effect – censor viewpoints that the governmental officials disagree with.

August 6, 2016 Update:

 

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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