Lawmakers are warned blocking people on social media might lead to a lawsuit

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Utah lawmakers are being warned about how they handle their social media accounts, as blocking constituents from public pages could get them in some legal hot water.

During a closed caucus on Tuesday, legislative lawyers told House members that, should they decide to have a social media presence, they should set clear policies for conduct on their personal and legislative pages.

“It’s uncharted territory, and we’ve never had to deal with this before,” said one House Republican who commented on the condition of anonymity as what’s discussed in the closed caucuses is not supposed to be public.

Lawmakers were told banning or blocking a user from a legislative or campaign Twitter or Facebook page could lead to a lawsuit. The Supreme Court has ruled that when a government official creates a speech forum of any kind, “viewpoint-based discrimination” becomes unlawful. That means legislators cannot block users they disagree with on their public Facebook or Twitter accounts, as they are clearly public forums. A federal appeals court in Virginia ruled in January that politicians cannot block critics on social media, as it violates the First Amendment.

Twitter is another animal that presents different challenges for lawmakers. tPresident Donald Trump has appealed a lower court ruling that he cannot block critics from his official Twitter account. Legislative counsel informed lawmakers that court decisions are leaning toward prohibiting legislators from blocking people from their Twitter accounts, but courts do say they can “mute” people who make abusive or otherwise offensive comments. Muting does not prohibit a person from participating in a discussion, but the lawmaker will no longer see their comments.

Lawmakers were given a three-page handout on Wednesday morning, pictures of which you can see below, suggesting possible best practices for policing behavior on their social media pages.

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