No. 9: Your Legislator Shouldn't Block You on Twitter

At least, that's what the #TNleg's attorney says

If you, like me, occasionally feel frustrated because you have to log out of Twitter to see the conspiracy theories certain legislators are touting that particular week because said legislators, despite being elected officials paid with taxpayer money, have blocked you, I have good news — they aren’t supposed to do that.

Of course, if you know anything about the law (in Tennessee and the United States) and have followed the outcome of several lawsuits over this issue, you already knew that elected officials should not be blocking people on social media, whether those people are reporters or not. If a county commissioner’s emails and texts sent in his official duty are open records, it logically follows that his tweets are too.

Nevertheless, many thin-skinned state legislators like Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) and Rep. Dan Howell (R-Cleveland) have been known to block critics from the left and the right, including yours truly. And as legislators (debatably) have certain exemptions from the state’s open records act, it was been an ongoing question as to whether their blocks — sometimes for seemingly no reason at all — were legal or not.

But now it seems legislators will have harder time justifying blocks — especially, one would imagine, of reporters — after receiving an email last week from Anastasia P. Campbell, the director of the Office of Legal Services for the Tennessee General Assembly. In the email, Campbell states, “If a member maintains an official social media account, such as a Facebook page or Twitter account, the member should not block anyone from access to that page or account for any reason.” (Emphasis is hers.)

The memo goes on to explain that members also shouldn’t delete comments on Facebook or Instagram posts, except in extreme cases. Many members are known to regularly delete comments from anyone who disagrees with a post, no matter how politely that disagreement may be stated.

Here’s the memo in its entirety; all boldface is in the original email.

House Members and Staff

A topic of interest to many house members has recently come to my attention: whether house members should block people or remove posts made by other people from their official social media accounts. I believe you might benefit from having some general guidelines on this topic. I hope you find this information helpful!

House Members’ Official Social Media Accounts Blocking People or Removing Posts

All members of the Tennessee House of Representatives believe in the free and open exchange of ideas and information with the citizens each member serves; however, members may also want to ensure that any discourse taking place through the member’s social media account be civil and issue-focused. If a member maintains an official social media account, such as a Facebook page or Twitter account, the member should not block anyone from access to that page or account for any reason. If a member believes posted content is not civil or issue-focused, the member may hide or delete the content. However, hiding or deleting content should only be done in extreme cases, such as:

  • Use of obscene language, images, or symbols;

  • Use of any slurs directed at any individual or group;

  • Use of threatening language;

  • The posting of spam or other commercial ads or links;

  • The posting of hate speech, links to or material or accounts containing such;

  • The posting of off-topic content; or

  • Posts that violate generally accepted rules of courteous dialogue.

If the member does plan to hide or delete content, the member should post an acceptable use policy indicating such action could be taken. Also, as an alternative to hiding or deleting content, the member could report the content to the social media platform and allow the platform to determine what action should be taken. If a member also maintains a personal or nonofficial social media account, the member may block individual access to that page or account, but only if the member limits, to the greatest extent possible, the posting to that page or account to purely personal matters and activities, and not the official activities of the member.

The information provided in this email is not intended to constitute legal advice. Instead, it is for general informational purposes only. If you need legal advice regarding a specific issue related to these guidelines, please contact me directly.

Anastasia P. Campbell

Will this change anything about how members handle social media? I’m not quite sure. After asking Holt, Kelsey and Howell about the memo, Holt did unblock me on Twitter and Howell said that he would do so too. (As of publication, he had not, but he said he has just come back from vacation and had a lot of catching up to do.) Kelsey has not unblocked me, nor he did not respond to further requests for comment. Holt also didn’t reply to a text asking as to whether he had unblocked everyone or just me. (I know for a fact Holt has blocked many, many people in the past.)

It is possible the memo could spur more members to create dual Twitter accounts — one where they can personally rant about conspiracy theories and block people to their heart’s content, and others where they solely post about legislation and the like. Most members who use Facebook already have separate personal accounts and official (or campaign) pages, as anyone can “like” a page without befriending you. But will the most querulous members (or their staffers) stop deleting comments? “Posts that violate generally accepted rules of courteous dialogue” can be construed any number of ways, and everyone, elected or not, has different thresholds for what they find offensive.

My guess is that unless or until lawsuits are filed over the blocking and deletions, some members will continue to block people, whatever Campbell’s advice. But I would encourage all readers who have been blocked — whether by legislators or local elected officials — to share Campbell’s memo far and wide in the hopes that some people, like Holt, will change their minds and start unblocking y’all.

I would also strongly encourage everyone running for office to treat their campaign accounts like they are already official accounts and to not block dissenters. Whether you are serving your town or city or county or state, whether you are a Democrat or Republican, you aren’t going to make everyone happy. That’s part of the gig.

If you hate criticism, don’t run for office. Otherwise, make ample use of the mute button and filters, so your constituents can see your posts, for better or worse, but you don’t have to see their comments about them.

Reminder: I’m on Venmo @cgervin until subscriptions start (soon!) if you want to help fund this reporting. More importantly, if you want to throw reporting tips my way, you can reply to this email; DM me on Twitter or Facebook; message me on Signal or Confide; or call or text me.