ACLU, March 12, 2018 [elevator version: Can a political officeholder legally obstruct criticism by banning constituents from speaking their views in his public meetings and social media?]
PHILADELPHIA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania delivered a letter to Congressman Ryan Costello today urging him to stop blocking constituents who disagree with him from his official Facebook page and to cease denying them entry to his public town hall meetings. Writing on behalf of nine constituents from the 6th congressional district who have protested or criticized the congressman, the ACLU of Pennsylvania warned Costello that blocking residents from his social media pages and his community meetings based on their opposing views is prohibited by the First Amendment.
“In our democratic form of government, an elected official represents all of his constituents–even those who disagree with him,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We commend Congressman Costello for creating forums for his constituents to express their views, but he does not have the right to pick and choose which viewpoints he gets to hear.”
The constituents who have been blocked by Costello have expressed their opinions to him on a wide range of issues, including net neutrality, the environment, his support of President Trump, and his unwillingness to condemn racist, alt-right rhetoric. Most of the constituents named in the ACLU’s letter have been prohibited from commenting on Costello’s Facebook page, and at least three were denied admission to his town hall meetings, including one in Wyomissing, Berks County, where there were empty seats.
The letter from the ACLU cites Supreme Court precedent explaining that the First Amendment prohibits public officials from censoring speech based on the viewpoint expressed. The ACLU has offered Costello the opportunity to take corrective action but has also left open the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the congressman.
“Our clients simply want to be heard by their elected representative in Congress, and to have the same access to the congressman’s social media pages and events as his other constituents,” said Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It’s unconstitutional for a member of Congress to censor, block, and exclude his critics.”
The residents cited in the letter are represented by Tack-Hooper, Witold J. Walczak, and Michelin Cahill of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Professor Seth F. Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The letter that was sent to Costello is available at aclupa.org/Costello.