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Maryland governor settles lawsuit with ACLU over Facebook censorship

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In the fall of 2015, James Laurenson of Maryland was so upset that his governor, Larry Hogan, was opposed to the Obama administration’s plan to allow Syrian refugees to resettle within the U.S. that he did something he never had before: He aired his grievances on the governor’s public Facebook page.

As part of comments that were also emailed to the governor’s office, Laurenson wrote that he was “ashamed to be called a Marylander” and believed that Hogan, a Republican, was “aiding and abetting” the Islamic State.

No one replied to Laurenson’s email, but someone overseeing the Facebook page deleted his comments and then blocked him from posting further, according to a federal lawsuit filed last August on behalf of Laurenson and three others who say they were similarly gagged by the governor’s office.

But now, Hogan’s critics are free again to speak their minds. On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland announced a settlement allowing for open expression on the governor’s Facebook page, which has more than 275,000 likes.

It’s an especially striking outcome, observers say, after other public officials — most notably President Donald Trump — have been sued on complaints of censoring their constituents on social media.

The agreement is “good for free speech and for our democracy,” said Neil Richards, a professor at Washington University Law School who specializes in First Amendment theory.

The ACLU also heralded the settlement as a “victory for the free-speech rights of constituents who wish to respectfully disagree” with the governor.

The fight against social media censorship is also the basis for a First Amendment lawsuit filed in federal court last July by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and seven people who say they were wrongly blocked by Trump on Twitter.

The government has argued that Trump’s account is personal, so he has the right to block users. A ruling could come within a couple of months.

Katie Fallow, a senior staff attorney for Knight, said the settlement in Maryland this week is an optimistic sign in the Trump case.

“It’s a good development in the sense that the governor is agreeing not to block people based on viewpoints, which is the central aim of our lawsuit as well,” Fallow said.

“The whole point that we want in our democracy and the First Amendment is that people should be allowed to criticize public officials,” she said, adding that the public discourse is not benefited when only voices that praise officials are heard.

 Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan delivers his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature in Annapolis on Feb. 1, 2017. Patrick Semansky / AP

As part of the Maryland case, the ACLU said, the governor’s office agreed not to discriminate against someone who has a critical viewpoint and agreed to create a second “constituent message page” for users to discuss any topic, even ones that Hogan has not previously addressed. In addition, social media users with restrictions to the governor’s accounts can contest their access.

Laurenson said Tuesday that he was finally unblocked from the governor’s Facebook page in the past week after previous requests to regain access. He said he wished that the case didn’t have to come to a lawsuit, but the settlement is “a good day for democracy.”

The governor’s office already had a written social media policy for more than a year. The ACLU conceded in its lawsuit that the governor’s office did warn users that it would ban certain comments it finds “inappropriate,” although the ACLU said the policy also appeared “inconsistent with the First Amendment” and too broad and vague.

Hogan’s office suggested that the settlement was less a victory for the ACLU and was “pleased” that the organization decided to drop “this frivolous and politically motivated lawsuit.”

“Ultimately, it was much better for Maryland taxpayers to resolve this, than to continue wasting everyone’s time and resources in court,” governor’s office spokeswoman Shareese Churchill said in a statement.

The Washington Post reported last year that the governor’s office had blocked 450 people on Facebook since taking office in 2015. About half were barred over “hateful or racist” language, a spokesman said, while the others were blocked following the unrest in Baltimore in 2014 or in relation to the Trump administration’s travel ban.

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The governor’s office said at the time that “anarchists” were responsible for some of the posts, while Facebook users who were writing pro-Hillary Clinton messages that “contained very similar language” were essentially hijacking Hogan’s page.

Regardless, Richards said, government officials shouldn’t pick and choose what can appear in a public forum — opening themselves up to lawsuits over constitutionality.

“When the government opens up a place (whether it’s a park, or a meeting space, or a digital forum) for public discussion, they can’t exclude (or delete) speakers that they don’t like,” Richards said in an email. “That’s censorship and it’s unconstitutional.”

If officials are simply worried about hateful comments or cyberharassment, those concerns are already policed on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which have their own terms of service, said Jennifer Grygiel, a social media professor at Syracuse University.

One solution to protecting people’s First Amendment rights, Grygiel said, is for Facebook and others to create a different system for public officials or organizations, so that unlike private users, they can’t block whomever they want without oversight.

“The president is simply using a functionality [on Twitter] that is available to him,” Grygiel said. “So maybe instead, they turn off the blocking feature.”

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Ohio Republican Senate candidate running as a Trump ally once called him a ‘maniac’

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CLEVELAND — As a Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, businessman Bernie Moreno hews close to former President Donald Trump’s brand.

The car dealer and blockchain technology entrepreneur from the Cleveland area presents himself in much the same outsider’s vein. And last month Moreno submitted himself to what has been described as a “Hunger Games”-like competition for Trump’s support during a private meeting he and three rivals had with the former president in Florida.

But five years ago, Moreno wanted nothing to do with then-candidate Trump as the New York real estate tycoon and reality TV star romped his way to the Republican nomination and White House.

Moreno, according to emails obtained by NBC News, bashed Trump as a “lunatic” and “maniac” when corresponding with a national Republican fundraising consultant seeking donations. Moreno said he would, in an upcoming meeting with the Pope, ask “for a convention miracle” in which then-House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida “emerge as the saviors of the Republican Party.”

And he suggested he would stop donating to the national party if Trump became its leader.

“I am a hard core true believer in the party! But … If Donald Trump is nominated, I will consider that a hostile take over and no longer associate myself with THAT, new GOP,” Moreno wrote in a March 2016 exchange, responding to a request that he meet with then-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus during a visit to Cleveland. Moreno noted that he would be out of state at the time.

“I completely get the position Reince is in and he is doing the best he can with a lunatic invading the party,” Moreno added. “In retrospect, more could/should have been done early, but I don’t blame anyone for that. Hindsight is always 20/20.”

Moreno closed the email prophetically: “The worst part for me,” he wrote, “I think trump can beat Hillary!”

A month later, as Trump tightened his grip on the nomination from a field that started with 17 candidates, the fundraising consultant followed up with Moreno and acknowledged concerns “about the situation at the presidential level” and wondered if Moreno might contribute to a separate fund for Senate hopefuls.

“Given that I see a future where trump is the leader of what used to be my party, I’ve sidelined myself,” Moreno replied. “I will support individual candidates, but can’t support a party led by that maniac.”

Moreno’s campaign, in response to questions about the emails, forwarded additional emails from the correspondence. One of them included the consultant commiserating to Moreno about “a very weird place we are in” and that “no one would have expected this to be where we are in March 2016.”

Moreno’s campaign also noted that the consultant now raises money for one of Moreno’s GOP primary opponents, Jane Timken, former chair of the state’s Republican Party.

“This email exchange was with Jane Timken’s current fundraiser,” Moreno campaign manager Parker Briden said. “At the time the fundraiser was raising money for the RNC when these five-year-old emails were exchanged.”

“Bernie gave more than $50,000 to the RNC and related entities in the Trump 2016 cycle,” Briden added. “That includes thousands of dollars from after this conversation — to support Republicans up and down the ballot. He was obviously fired up and disappointed in the moment years ago, but he supported Donald Trump, donated to him, and is fired up for his agenda.”

The donation to Trump came at an October 2020 event in Cleveland for Trump Victory, a joint fundraising venture with the RNC, a Moreno campaign spokesman said.

Moreno had raised money for Rubio’s presidential bid and contributed to then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s White House campaign early in the 2016 cycle. His company also gave $20,000 to the Republican National Convention’s host committee in Cleveland long before it was known Trump would be the nominee.

His initial Trump skepticism does not make Moreno unique among Republicans angling to succeed GOP Sen. Rob Portman, who announced in January that he was retiring.

Former State treasurer Josh Mandel also had first supported Rubio, and Timken had backed Kasich. But Mandel and Timken also would eventually nurture strong ties to the Trump network. Mandel did it through the political aides he loaned to Trump for the 2016 general election, Timken through her years as Trump’s handpicked head of the Ohio Republican Party.

Both have spent the early days of the developing primary trying to outdo each other on the measure of who’s most loyal to Trump.

As Briden noted, despite renouncing the GOP in his emails with the fundraiser, Moreno continued contributing to other top party leaders and organizations in the run-up to Trump’s election victory. He gave $10,000 each to Ryan’s super PAC and the National Republican Congressional Committee that fall, according to the Federal Election Commission.

The following year, as the 2018 midterm campaigns began, Moreno was a top donor to the successful House campaign of Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, the former NFL wide receiver and Ohio State Buckeyes standout. Gonzalez — one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump this year for inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol — now rates as one of the most despised figures in the former president’s political orbit.

In an April 2019 interview with Cleveland’s NBC affiliate, WKYC, Moreno corrected the interviewer when asked about his support for Trump.

“No, my daughter works on Trump 2020,” Moreno said. “And she’s free to do that. We have a vigorous debate at home about politics, and my daughter works on the Trump campaign. That doesn’t mean that I support the Trump campaign.”

A Moreno spokesperson said Monday that the prominent local businessman did not want to overshadow his daughter’s professional work.

Today, Moreno leans unabashedly into Trump. He sprinkled his official campaign launch last week with other gestures to Trump and his supporters. He’s been endorsed by Trump loyalist and former U.S. ambassador Richard Grenell and his steering committee includes allies of the former president with Ohio ties, including the Rev. Darrell Scott and former White House aide Ja’Ron Smith. And where Moreno was once a GOP donor who wanted his party to cancel Trump, he’s now a vocal defender.

“Big Tech companies colluded to erase President Donald J. Trump from the internet because they hate what he represents,” Moreno writes on his website. “If they can silence him, what will they do to the rest of us if we step out of line?”

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Brexit LIVE: UK nears major breakthrough in hated NI deal after EU files legal action

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UK OFFICIALS are poised to make a major breakthrough in talks on the controversial Northern Ireland protocol, just weeks after the EU launched legal action over the matter.

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Verhofstadt attacked over 'farce of EU’s democratic values’ after rant against Orban

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GUY VERHOFSTADT’S attempt to interfere in Hungarian politics has been torn apart by observers who said the eurocrat was “illustrating the farce of so-called EU’s democratic values” with his rant.

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