Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:
Question: Reading your April 27 Answer Man about someone crashing into the Salvation Army building while drag racing made me think of another reckless driver who flew off Long Shoals Road just past Koontz Intermediate School and crashed into a batting cage at the Valley Springs baseball fields early last summer. The driver also took out the transformer that operates the lights, and the lights still aren’t working a year later because, from what I’ve been told, Duke Energy won’t fix them until it gets money from someone’s insurance company. This has severely impacted the 2023 South Buncombe Youth Sports baseball and softball season (disclaimer: my daughter plays in the league) by limiting field availability. Perhaps there’s more to the story?
My answer: On another note, the vehicle was called “Out!” at the plate.
Real answer: In this case, it is not Duke’s fault.
“The Buncombe County Schools Maintenance Department was able to repair all of the damage following the car wreck referenced by your reader,” BCS spokesperson Stacia Harris said via email. “The last piece is the lighting.”
The school system placed an order for an electrical box from a vendor, the only remaining piece of equipment needed.
“Due to reasons beyond our control, this equipment has a significant lead time,” Harris said. “We are still waiting for it to arrive.”
The school system has hired an electrical contractor to perform the work.
“After they receive the ordered panel, it will be installed, and Duke Energy will turn on the power following inspection approval,” Harris said.
Having written about construction projects and home building quite a bit in the past, I can tell you these delays in getting key equipment are for real. These supply chain issues and production problems have gummed up the industry a lot since the pandemic hit.
I did reach out to Duke Energy on this one, and spokesperson Bill Norton confirmed Harris’s account.
“As Stacia has made clear, the delays stem from their vendor and are entirely unrelated to Duke Energy,” Norton said via email. “We stand ready to return power to the lights as soon as their equipment arrives and is installed.”
Question: Can an elected official block or limit you on social media? U.S. Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., limits comments to posts on his official Instagram account. He uses the page to carry out his duties as a United States Senator. Isn’t the account subject to the First Amendment?
My answer: As I write this, a black helicopter is hovering directly over my office, and soldiers dressed in all black uniforms are rappelling toward me. Probably just a coincidence …
Real answer: This one can get a touch murky, but in general, no, politicians should not be censoring people in the manner described.
But enforcement is another matter entirely.
“Public officials should not limit or censor speech on their official social media channels,” Western Carolina University political scientist Chris Cooper told me. “It is probably illegal, certainly unethical, and just as certain to never be punished.”
In a March 30 article from the NYCLU, the American Civil Liberties Union of New York, the authors state: “If a public official uses their account to carry out their role as an elected official, then their page or account is subject to the First Amendment. That means they cannot engage in most forms of censorship such as blocking someone or deleting someone’s comments just because of their subject or opinion. It is also generally unacceptable for the official to ask the platform to delete comments for them.”
As the NYCLU points out, “Even online, your First Amendment rights remain with you.”
So, according to the article, if the social media page is used an an extension of their office, the politician cannot:
— Stop people from joining a public conversation on the social media account because of the views they express on the topics being discussed.
— Block critical voices from asking for government services through the social media account because of those critical viewpoints.
— Prevent people from being able to see social media posts that publicly announce government information or policy because of their viewpoints.
But you can’t just go on social media and be a complete jerk, either. As the NYCLU notes, politicians “can block posters for making personal threats and in some cases for the use of profane language.”
Also, “They can in certain circumstances limit discussions to specific subjects, particularly if done from the outset.”
I don’t know what specifically the reader may have said on Instagram, but I did see on one of Budd’s posts a commenter had written, “FYI Senator Budd’s social media team hides any negative comments.”
That would clearly be a no-no.
I reached out to Budd’s press office and spokesperson Mike Reynard said, “We do not censor or restrict any content outside of clear bot or spam behavior. It is possible that Instagram takes action on accounts for defamatory rhetoric, but our office has no control over that.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which bills itself as “the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world,” also had an interesting article on the topic in February 2021 titled, “Can Government Officials Block You on Social Media? A New Decision Makes the Law Murkier, But Users Still Have Substantial Rights.”
One of the gray areas in all of this comes in when politicians blur the lines between personal accounts and their official political accounts. The EFF article revolves around a case, “Campbell v. Reisch,” that involved a Twitter account of Missouri state representative Cheri Reisch.
Reisch in 2018 blocked a constituent, Mike Campbell, after Campbell retweeted a critical comment.
“Campbell filed a lawsuit arguing that the First Amendment protects his right to access information from Reisch’s account, and asked the court to order Reisch to unblock him,” the article states. “Reisch appealed to the Eighth Circuit, claiming that Campbell had no First Amendment right to follow her account because it was her personal campaign account and not her official government account.”
That court “concluded that even government officials’ nominally private accounts can in fact be used for official purposes — in which case it would violate the First Amendment for these accounts to block followers based on their viewpoints. These social media accounts can change over time, too, the court found, and a private account “can turn into a governmental one if it becomes an organ of official business.”
But, as EFF noted, “these cases have also concluded that not every social media account maintained by a governmental official would necessarily be an ‘official’ account.”
“Reisch argued the account in this case was for her campaign, and thus maintained by her as a private citizen, not as a governmental official,” the article states. “Unfortunately, the Eighth Circuit agreed with Reisch, and concluded that the way Reisch used her Twitter feed was not enough to transform it into a government account.”
If you really want to take an even deeper dive into all of this, the University of North Carolina School of Government has another good article on its site, written in September 2022 and titled, “Can local government officials block their critics on social media?” It looks into another court case that left some ambiguity, but the author, Kristi Nickodem, also gives this “Bottom line:”
“Local governments and individual public officials should think carefully before deleting comments or blocking individuals from their social media pages, especially if blocking the user or deleting the comment may appear to be based solely on a negative or critical viewpoint expressed by that individual. Local government officials should also be careful to clearly delineate between their personal and official pages on social media, so that any action taken on their personal pages will not be construed as government action.”
Got a question? Send it to John Boyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-337-0941.