The father of our country knew something about bad press.
Americans loved George Washington, but it didn’t take long for newspapers to start slamming him on everything from domestic policy to his political principles.
He chafed at the criticism, sure. But he did not silence his critics.
Because back in 1783, Washington said, “the freedom of Speech may be taken away — and, dumb & silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.”
That brings me to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who needs to work on being more like Washington.
Hogan’s staff has blocked and deleted the posts of at least 450 people who voiced their opinions on his official Facebook page. And the American Civil Liberties Union sued him for that earlier this week.
The governor’s staff dismissed the lawsuit as frivolous, and the online commentary was rich with a “who cares?” backlash. “It’s only Facebook,” plenty of folks said.
But it matters. And it especially matters when it’s a guy like Hogan.
This is a Republican governor in an overwhelmingly Democratic state who is astonishingly popular. He has the second-highest approval rating of the nation’s 50 governors.
Hogan is not a reactionary hothead. He’s shown a steady hand in leading his state and a stern adherence to principles.
He’s also been pretty deft at using Facebook as a primary means to connect with his constituents, playfully debuting his hairless head after chemo treatments on his page.
So blocking people who come to the governor’s page — which is a public forum, labeled as official and administered by staff members paid public tax dollars — is unnecessary and ultimately dangerous.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse defended the governor’s actions, arguing that blocking the comments was nothing more than moderating them.
“The governor’s office has a very clear social media policy, and we will continue to remove all hateful and violent content and coordinated spam attacks to foster an open and constructive dialogue,” she said.
But it’s too easy to use the image of trolls or spammers or hateful folks lashing out online.
The Post talked to some of the real people blocked by Hogan. And they’re just that — real people talking to their elected leaders: a teacher, a business owner and a pastor, not trolls.
They all said that their comments were respectful, thoughtful and not profane. The pastor quoted the Bible in his post, appealing to Hogan’s Catholic faith.
Attorney Lakshmi Sarma Ramani of Bowie, Md., wasn’t hateful, but she asked about hate crimes.
“I politely commented that I was disappointed in his lack of response to hate crimes and other recent news items,” she wrote in the comment section of The Post’s news story. “I also do not appreciate that idea that when a number of people comment on the same topic, they are immediately disregarded by some as a so-called collective effort, rather than recognized as a large group of concerned citizens.”
What the governor’s staff called a “concentrated spam attack” others would probably call “advocacy.”
The Facebook era makes it easy to tailor a message by simply blocking a critic or deleting a negative comment. It’s a lot cleaner than the old days, when doing the same would have required sending staff out to collect and burn newspapers with critical editorials or arresting and silencing protesters.
But that’s exactly what’s happening, only digitally.
Hogan isn’t the first public official to be criticized for defanging Facebook and other social media.
President Trump is being sued by Twitter users who were blocked from his Twitter feed.
One of the first landmark rulings on this issue came down last week in Virginia.
The chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors violated the First Amendment, according to U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris in Alexandria, when she banned a constituent from her Facebook page.
And in Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin (R) also got a visit from the ACLU over his use of Facebook and Twitter.
This shouldn’t be so hard.
In Washington’s time, the era of affordable postage had an impact much like the Internet. The number of newspapers quadrupled between 1776 and 1800, and anonymous letter writers hammered his leadership. And even back then, Washington had anonymous trolls.
People using the pseudonyms “Juricola,” “Valerius,” “Belisarius,” and “Portius” all wrote letters to newspapers trashing Washington’s decisions. Petitions criticizing his stand on the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation with Britain overwhelmed his office, according to the historical documents collected by the online Papers of George Washington Project.
But he did not silence them.
Freedom of speech, dissent and discourse lie at the very foundation of our nation. And true leadership means accepting that.
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