Seventy Facebook users are threatening legal action against Seaford Republican U.S. Rep. Peter King, alleging that their First Amendment rights have been abridged. The 70, represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, allege that they were blocked from King’s Facebook page after posting comments critical of the congressman’s policies.
One Seaford resident was banned from the page after posting a complaint about King’s vote against the Affordable Care Act. “Your vote . . . was unthinkably irresponsible and does not account for the thousands of constituents in your district who rely upon the many services and provisions provided for them by the ACA,” the resident, who was not identified, was quoted as saying in a letter to King from NYCLU attorneys.
Another constituent, Meg Rowe, said she moved to the 2nd Congressional District two years ago, and was attempting to get more information on the 2017 death in Yemen of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens when she found herself blocked, “almost in real time.” A third, Kevin, who declined to identify himself further, said he was blocked from the site after asking King for proof of his accusations that The New York Times was writing what the congressman called “fake news” stories — a common refrain on King’s page. Kevin said that King ought either to “offer proof or else apologize to The Times.” Instead, Kevin was allegedly blocked from future posting.
King contends that the site is run by his campaign staff and has nothing to do with his congressional office, and that he does not exercise any direct oversight. “It doesn’t show me conducting any government business or inside Congress or anything of that nature,” he said. “It’s like an electronic campaign brochure. You wouldn’t expect me to put my enemies’ comments in something like that.” He added that the site avoided discussing pending legislation or votes before the House.
“It’s pictures of me at Little League games, things of that nature,” King said. “And I have a Twitter account that’s maintained by the [Congressional] office, where people can post anything they want as long as it isn’t obscene. It’s not edited in any way.”
King complained that “I was talking about my experiences playing stickball as a boy in Queens, and one person asked me how many children I’d put in concrete cages.”
Rowe said she had been unable to find anything on King’s Facebook page identifying it as a campaign site. Most campaign literature is clearly identified as such, using language like “Paid for by . . .” to show the source of the material and its funding.
“Congressman King uses the page as official communication, including messages aimed directly at constituents,” NYCLU staff attorney Anthony Gemmell said. “It’s a key means of communication, and by shutting off dissent, he is denying constituents their fundamental First Amendment rights.”
Random scans last week did show photos of Little League games and gatherings of various community groups, as well as a large photo of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, along with comments from King supporters containing harshly personal attacks on Sanders. The page also contained a number of King’s posts on political issues, including the release of the Mueller report, U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Brexit.
Toward the end of the week, a smattering of comments critical of King began to appear.
The NYCLU claims that websites such as King’s constitute the electronic equivalent of town halls, a contention seemingly supported by a March 19 federal court ruling, in Knight Institute v. Trump, involving President Trump’s well-known tweets. In that case, filed in the Southern District of New York, Trump was sued by seven people who claimed they had been blocked from responding to his Twitter feeds on @realDonaldTrump because of their opinions.
“This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, ‘block’ a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed,” U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald wrote in her opinion, “and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States. The answer to both questions is no.”
The NYCLU contends that the King case is analogous to Knight. In a letter to King, NYCLU Legal Director Christopher Dunn, Gemmell and Legal Fellow Melissa Pettit wrote, “Like a traditional town hall hosted by any elected official, the Congressman Peter King Facebook page is an important avenue for communication between you and the constituents you represent. Like ejecting them from that town hall, banning users from your Facebook page stifles their ability to weigh in on your work done on their behalf. It limits their participation in our democratic process, striking at the heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee.”
The NYCLU attorneys countered King’s contention that the website is operated solely by and on behalf of the campaign by responding that “. . . you have wrapped the page in the trappings of your office, using it as a tool of governance and benefiting from it as an elected official. Having reaped the benefits of the page’s official status, you cannot now ignore those benefits to avoid your obligations under the Constitution.”
“Silencing constituents for criticizing you,” they continued, “is, to borrow language from the Supreme Court, ‘censorship in its purest form’ [that] threatens the continued vitality of free speech.”
The attorneys have said that all 70 plaintiffs must be reinstated by May 3 to avoid further legal action. King said last week that he had referred the matter to his attorneys. “I have 54,000 followers,” he noted. “Seventy out of 54,000 — that’s not too many.”