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Law professor: Town allowed to disable Facebook comments

Posted on June 14, 2021

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The town of Spring Hope changed the settings on its Facebook page to no longer accept comments from the general public. Legal experts say that’s a safer route than blocking users or deleting individual comments, which may violate residents’ First Amendment rights.

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The town of Spring Hope changed the settings on its Facebook page to no longer accept comments from the general public. Legal experts say that’s a safer route than blocking users or deleting individual comments, which may violate residents’ First Amendment rights.

lkay@springhopeenterprise.com | 252-265-8117

Bluestein

Bluestein

SPRING HOPE -— Town officials who recently shut down social media comments may have riled up residents, but an open government expert says they didn’t run afoul of free speech rights.

During the Spring Hope Board of Commissioners meeting on June 7, residents who complained about four water line breaks in a month also questioned why officials closed comments on the town’s Facebook page.

Resident Robin Koricanek said the town was silencing opposition.

Town Manager Jae Kim said comments had been turned off due to unconstructive criticism and misinformation, including false claims that the town’s water was full of carcinogens.

Kim said residents who wish to communicate with town staff could call, email or stop by town hall.

While Kim’s decision to turn off comments may have irked some residents, he didn’t violate anyone’s First Amendment rights, according to Frayda Bluestein, a David M. Lawrence distinguished professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government in Chapel Hill.

Bluestein said the town doesn’t have to allow comments on social media as long as it doesn’t target any specific person.

“There is no obligation for municipalities to use social media, so even if they opened that forum, they have no obligation to keep using it,” Bluestein said. “The one thing that they can’t do is block specific opinions, people or comments. It’s good to have a policy regarding what types of topics and information that is allowed. But if (Spring Hope) feels that overall, the comments do not seem to meet the purpose of the social media, they can stop allowing it.”

Using a Facebook page manager setting that removes the option to post comments carries less legal risk than removing individual user comments. When government agencies or officials use social media as a two-way communication channel, their official pages are considered limited public forums where First Amendment principles apply. Comment moderation must be viewpoint-neutral, and officials can’t lawfully block users or delete comments in order to silence criticism.

In the 2019 case Davison v. Randall, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Loudon County Board of Supervisors chair engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination when she blocked Virginia resident Brian Davison from her official Facebook page. Published 4th Circuit opinions are considered binding precedent in North Carolina.

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