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Maryland, ACLU reach settlement over governor deleting critical comments on his Facebook page

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) blocked 450 people from his Facebook page between 2015 and 2017. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Several Facebook users who sued Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) for blocking them on his official Facebook page after they left critical comments have reached a settlement in the case, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

The state has agreed to pay $65,000 to plaintiffs and in attorney fees and to devise a new social media policy that oversees the governor’s page, create a separate Facebook page where constituents can raise issues and set up an appeal process for those who think their comments have been improperly deleted.

The agreement was approved by the state Board of Public Works last week.

The ACLU sued Hogan and two of his aides in federal court in August after several Facebook users claimed their comments were deleted and that they were blocked from his page after they questioned his position on education policy and President Trump’s travel ban.

The settlement is one of the first in the country that requires an elected official to establish a new social media policy. Numerous cases against elected officials, including one against Trump by several Twitter followers, are still in litigation.

“We are excited to see Maryland in the forefront of protecting speech rights in this context with this model social media policy,” said Deborah Jeon, legal director of the ACLU of Maryland. “It definitely holds the governor accountable to the First Amendment that previously there was no check on what happened on the Facebook page.”

Shareese Churchill, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said the state is glad to put an end to the “frivolous and politically motivated lawsuit.”

“Ultimately, it was much better for Maryland taxpayers to resolve this, than to continue wasting everyone’s time and resources in court,” she said in an email.

Between 2015 and 2017, Hogan blocked 450 people from his Facebook page.

Amelia Chasse, another Hogan spokeswoman, previously said the comments and users removed from the page were “hateful” or part of an orchestrated campaign.

Under the governor’s original social media policy, which was implemented early last year, comments could be removed if they contained profanity or obscenities; contained a hyperlink to other content or “other content that was deemed inappropriate”; was “one of at least three similar repetitive comments made by different users”; or was “not about any posted initiative, event or personal announcement.” A user could be blocked for threatening violence or participating in a coordinated effort.

Under the revised policy, a comment could be deleted for linking to harmful software or expressing profanity and obscenities, threats of violence, “disruptively repetitive content” or content that is “clearly unrelated to the subject matter of any post ever made on the platform by or on behalf of the governor.” But a comment would no longer be removed because it includes a hyperlink or is part of a coordinated effort, among other things.

Janice Lepore, a Baltimore County resident and one of the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said she followed Hogan’s Facebook page to learn about his positions on education policy, and when she realized that she disagreed, she decided to post comments.

“It never occurred to me that the governor or his staff would seek to prohibit me from engaging in conversations in a public forum, simply because my opinions differ from their positions,” Lepore said in a statement.

She said she hopes the settlement will lead to better engagement between the governor and Maryland residents.

Jeon said she thinks the new policy will go a long way toward allowing constituents to be heard.

“Now there are ways that constituents who feel that they are blocked can challenge those actions,” Jeon said. “I think it really will ensure that there isn’t the kind of viewpoint discrimination that folks were alleging previously.”