Rick Calvert wants his congressman’s attention. So the Murrieta resident used Facebook and Twitter to send messages to Murrieta’s congressman, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona – no relation.
A self-described “lifelong liberal,” Rick Calvert also has produced online videos for Indivisible 42, a grassroots group critical of the conservative congressman. One day, Rick Calvert found himself blocked from viewing Ken Calvert’s social media posts.
According to Rick Calvert, the congressman’s spokesman said he was blocked “because of something ‘he wouldn’t want children to read.’”
“I spent 20 years in talk radio as a production director, and I know communications well,” Rick Calvert wrote in an email. “Nothing I tweeted or posted on (Facebook) was threatening, though I do hit hard with the snark.
“But I know the Constitution and my rights to free speech, as it was my job for many years to know what was allowable and what was not when it came to public discourse,” Rick Calvert said. “Ken Calvert’s desire was simply to silence an opposing viewpoint. Period.”
As elected leaders use social media for public outreach, questions arise when they block accounts. In June, a group of Twitter users blocked by President Donald Trump sued, arguing that Twitter is a public forum and Trump is infringing on freedom of speech by blocking users whose opinions he dislikes.
Last month, a federal court ruled in favor of a Virginia man who was blocked after alleging school board corruption in a post on a county supervisor’s Facebook page.
“Indeed, social media may now be ‘the most important’ modern forum ‘for the exchange of views,’” the judge wrote in his decision. “The First Amendment applies to speech on social media with no less force than in other types of forums.”
But with social media comes posts rife with obscenities and threats against lawmakers. And it’s not just a problem for politicians. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that 73 percent of adult Internet users had seen someone being harassed online, with 40 percent personally experiencing harassment.
What’s the line?
Jason Gagnon, Ken Calvert’s spokesman, said the congressman’s social media policy is essentially the same as The Press-Enterprise’s, which reserves the right to delete comments on online material “that are unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane, indecent or otherwise objectionable to us.”
“In the few instances where individuals post abusive, obscene or threatening messages, they have and will be blocked from our official accounts,” Gagnon said. “Examples of messages that have resulted in individuals being blocked includes obscene personal attacks and messages indicating they hope the congressman dies from AIDS.
“Our office has been advised by House counsel that our policy is in accordance with applicable laws and House ethics rules,” Gagnon added. “Rep. Calvert believes Americans can disagree without being disagreeable – and the overwhelming majority of our constituents share that belief and practice that approach.”
The office of Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, reported not blocking anyone on Twitter, although a few have been blocked from seeing the congressman’s Facebook page.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Redlands, has not blocked anyone on Twitter or Facebook, spokeswoman Sarah Weinstein said. “His office does not have a policy that blocks or prohibits individuals from commenting on or sharing content,” she said.
Since January, no one has been blocked from seeing social media posts from Rep. Norma Torres, D-Pomona, spokeswoman Anna Gonzalez said.
“Users are only blocked in extreme cases where they have become threatening or harassing of the congresswoman or other users,” Gonzalez said.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside, blocks users only as a last resort if “they demonstrate a pattern of
posting violent, profane or abusive language,” spokesman Josh Weisz said.
“Constituents absolutely have a right to participate in that conversation and I encourage them to exercise that right, whether they agree with me or not,” Takano said. “All I ask is that they do so without using violent, abusive, or profane language that offends others and undermines the tone and quality of the conversation.”
The offices of Southern California congressional Republicans Mimi Walters of Irvine, Darrell Issa of Vista, Ed Royce of Fullerton and Duncan Hunter of Alpine did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, said he’s not involved with the congressman’s social media accounts, which Rohrabacher handles personally.
Regarding social media and politicians, Jeff McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University in Indiana, said: “As with pretty much all First Amendment issues, there needs to be some balancing here.
“A key is whether the government official is using a social media site to conduct official government functions or personal matters,” he said. “Another key is whether the blocked constituent has acted in a civil manner.
“Blocking a citizen who has communicated in a harassing or indecent manner is really no different than having an unruly citizen removed from a city council or school board meeting,” McCall added. “Citizens don’t necessarily have access to all government officials’ communications.”
McCall noted that federal and state legislation may ultimately be needed to spell out whether public officials’ social media sites will be considered public records.
“Most access laws for public meetings and documents were passed in the ’70s, before the digital sphere was part of the conversation,” he said. “The methods for communicating about civic affairs have changed a lot since then.”