South Carolina lawmakers should stop blocking anyone from their social media pages who have not harassed or threatened them or they may soon face free speech lawsuits, an attorney for the state House said.
If they are sued over social media, lawmakers will be on their own to pay their legal bills, attorney Michael Anzelmo told a recent House Republican Caucus meeting.
Anzelmo spoke to the caucus in the aftermath of rulings against social media decisions to block followers of President Donald Trump and in a case of a Virginia school board member, The State newspaper reported.
The lawsuits compared social media to a town hall meeting or discussion in a public square.
Rep. Neal Collins recently was sent a letter from an attorney for several people he had blocked on social media threatening to sue him if he doesn’t unblock them.
“This is a warning shot from me to all these representatives, and probably a warning shot from anyone who loves the First Amendment to all of these lawmakers,” lawyer Tom Fernandez said.
Collins keeps screenshots of offensive messages. Images of his head have been placed on someone burning the American flag or a NFL player protesting the national anthem. He’s been sent a picture of a noose and called crude terms for both male and female genitalia.
Collins is considering whether to shut down his social media, fight a possible lawsuit or unblock everyone. The Easley Republican said he backs free speech, but public meetings have their limits too.
“The problem is, in a town hall, I wouldn’t let somebody threaten me, harass me, swear or try to take over the town hall,” Collins said. “Common sense and my legal background tell me there have to be lines.”
State Sen. Katrina Shealy said she is quicker to block argumentative and negative people from her personal Facebook and Twitter accounts than her political Facebook page. She has clear, often posted rules: Be civil and don’t curse.
“As long as you behave, you can stay,” the Lexington Republican said. “My grandson doesn’t need to see people cursing at his grandmother.”
Some constituents said lawmakers can’t handle people who disagree with them. Abbie Mobley, a 32-year-old technical writer from the Charleston area, said she was blocked by her representative, Lin Bennett, last November after she criticized Bennett’s stance against abortion. Mobley said Bennett also blocked her mother after she liked one of those tweets.
“She’s in the Statehouse representing me. I don’t understand why she won’t engage me,” Mobley said. “It’s just a lost opportunity to engage with a constituent.”
The Republican Bennett said she considers her social media accounts personal and tries not to block anyone who lives in her Charleston area district.
“I don’t think we deserve that kind of disrespect and horrible treatment,” Bennett said. “I’ll shut down my account before I tolerate that.”