In Censorship Settlement, Social Media Critics of Maine Governor Come Out on Top

by | December 11, 2018 AT 6:33 PM

By Alex Acquisto

Good morning from Augusta, where it just got easier to post comments on the governor's Facebook page. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has settled its First Amendment lawsuit against Gov. Paul LePage, whom the group said unconstitutionally censored comments on his Facebook page.

The dispute dates back more than a year, and the settlement continues to allow LePage to claim distance between the Facebook page and his role as governor. The ACLU sued LePage in August 2017 after administrators of the page blocked Karin Leuthy and Kelli Whitlock Burton, co-leaders of the progressive group Suit Up Maine, from accessing or posting on the page. The pair posted criticisms about the Republican governor, which were later deleted and their status to post future comments was revoked. This action was reversed under the eight-page settlement reached Dec. 7. Leuthy and Burton are no longer blocked and administrators of the page are prohibited from blocking or censoring other constituents during LePage's remaining weeks in office. No monetary damages were awarded.

In a Friday statement, the pair said they hope the agreement will "discourage other elected officials from attempting to silence their critics." But LePage and his advisers have consistently claimed that the page exists outside the purview of his role as Maine's chief executive.

"The governor has always pointed out that this page was not an official government page and that he had nothing to do with its operation, and that remains true today," LePage's spokeswoman, Julie Rabinowitz, said Monday morning. He's "glad the ACLU is going to dismiss its case and that there will be no further expenses incurred in defending the lawsuit."

Before the group filed its lawsuit more than a year ago in U.S. District Court, the ACLU said it was aware of at least three people whose comments chastising the governor were deleted. LePage at the time said his page, which has more than 40,000 followers and is often used as a platform for sharing relevant information about his activities, wasn't a government page because it wasn't operated by his communications staff.

While addressing the plaintiffs' concerns about access, the agreement allows LePage to maintain his legal argument that the page was not a government-run public forum. In the settlement, LePage said he had "no involvement in any decision" to delete the plaintiffs' comments or to block them, but that "the operation of this page is private speech to which public forum analysis does not apply."

Political adviser Brent Littlefield, who runs the page, on Monday morning referred a request for comment to a Saturday statement posted to the page.

"Through labels and other actions taken by Facebook on its own initiative, some users of this page may have been confused about its status and may have believed this page was run by staff in state government," page administrators said in the post.

The page was created in 2009, it read, as a way to support LePage's first election and "has been used ever since as a home for the governor's political campaign efforts and for those who support the governor's policies."

Per the settlement requirements, anyone who believes they may have been wrongly blocked from the page can contact Facebookcase@aclumaine.org until Dec. 13 to request that their status be reinstated.

(c)2018 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine)