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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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'Find a solution!' Lord Hague demands EU shelve 'petty bureaucracy' to restart fish trade

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THE European Union have been ordered to give up their “petty bureaucracy” that is preventing easy trade between the bloc and the UK.

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Boris Johnson given 'final warning' to reach new deal with EU to stop Belfast riots

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BORIS Johnson has been given a “final warning” to reach a deal with the EU by the former leader of the Conservative Party William Hague.

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As GOP sticks with Trump, grassroots energy on the right has gone missing

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WASHINGTON — Tax Day 2009 was the start of the Tea Party protests against Barack Obama’s agenda.

But as we approach April 15, 2021 — even with the tax-filing deadline extended to May 17 — it’s become noticeable just how quiet the conservative grassroots have been during President Biden’s first three months in office.

Part of it is due to the fact that Biden has never been the lightning rod for the right that Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and even AOC are.

But another part is the 2020 defeated candidate who decided to stick around: Donald Trump.

In the 21st century, we’ve seen grassroots political movements — whether real, AstroTurf, or activated by cable news — replace defeated presidential candidates and unpopular presidents. (With the previous leadership either politically discredited by the results or voluntarily leaving day-to-day politics, new players rush to fill the vacuum and voters look for signals as to what they should be doing next and how their party can rebrand.)

The anti-war protests during George W. Bush’s presidency blossomed after John Kerry’s loss in 2004.

The Tea Party came alive after John McCain’s defeat in 2008, as well as Bush 43’s exit from the political stage.

And the Women’s March — the day after Trump’s inauguration — came after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss.

Sure, conservatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene are raising lots of money.

Also to be sure, there’s always been lots of grassroots energy behind Trump (though that has dissipated after Jan. 6).

But when we’re talking about grassroots movement and energy to bolster a political party and stop the opposition’s agenda, the energy on the right has been largely MIA.

And it’s all taking place in a political environment where Nikki Haley says she won’t run in 2024 if Trump does, as well as where Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the GOP’s Senate campaign arm, is presenting Trump with a trophy bowl.

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

6: The number of women who developed rare blood clots after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, prompting federal health agencies to call for a pause on its use.

5: The number of Democratic pollsters who have signed on to a statement acknowledging “major errors” in 2020 polling.

31,401,163: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 70,733 more than yesterday morning.)

566,645: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far, per the most recent data from NBC News. (That’s 548 more than yesterday morning.)

189,692,045: Number of vaccine doses administered in the U.S.

20.3 percent: The share of Americans who are fully vaccinated.

16: The number of days left for Biden to reach his 100-day vaccination goal.

Just asking

Another school shooting. Another police officer killing a Black man during a traffic stop.

Why aren’t guns and police reform higher on the political agenda?

Remembering when Ron DeSantis’ own mail-in ballot got rejected

Here’s another angle to the continuing story of GOP-led state legislatures trying to place more restrictions on access to the ballot: There’s no guarantee that GOP skepticism of mail-in voting will be a permanent feature of every election in the future. After all, it wasn’t before 2020.

Case in point: Florida, where Republicans once dominated in mail voting, particularly with older voters — and where both former President Trump and now-Gov. Ron DeSantis made frequent use of the method.

In fact, as Noah Pransky of NBCLX reminds us, then-Rep. DeSantis had his own ballot rejected in 2016 due to a mismatched signature. (Pransky himself reported on the ballot’s rejection back in 2018.)

Pransky writes:

“When then-Congressman Ron DeSantis cast his mail ballot for Florida’s primary election in 2016, election workers in his hometown flagged the signature as a mismatch.”

“When DeSantis provided the canvassing board a new signature as a backup to the signatures already on-file, they determined that handwriting also had “no similarities” to the signature on DeSantis’ ballot and rejected the vote, according to Flagler County elections officials.”

More: “DeSantis’s public voting history — obtained through public records requests from the St. Johns and Flagler supervisors of elections — shows he regularly took advantage of Florida’s no-excuse absentee option, casting votes by mail in six out of seven elections between March 2016 and August 2020. The only time he voted in-person during that period was at a well-choreographed photo opportunity, when he appeared atop the ballot during his 2018 gubernatorial run.”

“Now, DeSantis is leading the charge in Florida to change how voters obtain a mail ballot, as well as how easily they can drop it off at their local elections offices.”

Still More: “[He] is also advocating a change to voter signature-matching that would order elections officials to use only a voter’s most-recent signature to determine authenticity.”

McCrory expected to jump into N.C. Senate race

Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory on Wednesday is expected to announce a bid for the state’s vacated Senate seat next year, and he’ll be joining a potentially crowded GOP field of candidates, NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell writes.

The field already includes Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who took a shot at McCrory on Twitter, and it could also include Trump daughter-in-law Lara Trump, as well as Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

Top private law firms are joining forces to form a “SWAT team”-style response to new voting restrictions, NBC’s Jane Timm writes.

The Biden administration is increasingly at odds with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over the coronavirus surge in her state.

The NCAA says it won’t hold championship events in states that restrict transgender athletes’ participation in sports.

Ohio Republican Senate candidate Bernie Moreno has cast himself as a big Trump fan. That wasn’t always the case, NBC’s Henry Gomez notes.

Speaking of Trump and GOP candidates, one Republican in Texas is taking an explicitly anti-Trump stance.

Progressive Democrat Charles Booker is mulling a race against Rand Paul.

How much difference would Biden’s proposed new actions on guns actually make?

The New York Times checks in on Andrew Cuomo’s continuing attempts to ride out his scandals.



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