ACLU threatens lawsuit against King
Congressman’s Facebook blocks called unconstitutional by agency claiming that opinion has been upheld in previous court cases
BY ANTHONY PERROTTA
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to sue Congressman Peter King (R-Seaford) for allegedly blocking about 70 constituents on Facebook.
The organization’s New York chapter sent a letter to King on Wednesday, April 24 that reads: “On behalf of numerous constituents of yours, we write to demand that you cease your practice of banning from the ‘Congressman Peter King’ Facebook page those who criticize you. Silencing these voices is an affront to the First Amendment and to the core values of our democracy. If you do not unban these constituents promptly, we intend to file a federal lawsuit to vindicate their rights.”
King told this publication in a telephone interview earlier this week that he is on “strong legal ground.”
The congressman admits to blocking a small percentage of users on Facebook and reserves the right to do so because the page is used for campaign purposes. “I don’t care what [critics] have to say about me, but I shouldn’t have to pay for it,” he said, adding that no one is blocked from his Twitter account, which is used for his political office.
King went on to compare allowing users to post critical comments on his Facebook/campaign page with taking out a television ad and giving the political opposition half the airtime.
The congressman, however, didn’t seem surprised by the ACLU’s move, as he said they have been “talking about it for a while.”
A federal judge declared last year that President Donald Trump’s practice of banning users from his Twitter account was unconstitutional. The verdict, perhaps, served as a precedent for a case in Virginia earlier this year, where an appeals court ruled that a board of supervisors chair violated someone’s First Amendment rights by blocking them on Facebook.
The ACLU’s letter, which is signed by legal director Christopher Dunn, staff attorney Anthony Gemmell and legal fellow Melissa Pettit, contains comments from several anonymous constituents within King’s 2nd congressional district, which includes southwestern Suffolk County and a small portion of southeastern Nassau County.
According to the ACLU, a Brightwaters resident was banned shortly after making the following comment: “I am really surprised that comments asking about your upcoming votes keep getting deleted. It is either that you don’t want to explain it to non-press members or you want all the comments on your post to appear positive. I’m not sure what is worse, but it is incredibly disappointing you won’t engage with anyone unless they’re complimenting you.”
According to the letter, a Great River resident was banned minutes after confronting the congressman about deleting comments. “Why are so many posts disappearing? Last night, it seemed like over half the people did not agree with what Congressman King had to say, now they are all gone,” the resident wrote at the time. “Aren’t congressmen supposed to represent and listen to all his constituents, even those that don’t agree with him?”
The ACLU’s letter also mentions a West Islip resident they say was banned for posting their opinion that the 2nd congressional district needs in-person town halls like those held by other representatives on Long Island, such as Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Thomas Suozzi (D-Huntington).
The letter also refers to a recent report (“If Trump Can Block Critics on Twitter, Your Local Politician May Do It, Too,” published on April 3, 2019, by The New York Times), where King first affirmed that he uses his Facebook profile solely for his campaign, not political office. But, the ACLU argues that King also uses the page as a “tool of governance.”
Some of King’s most recent Facebook posts, relating to governance and policy, condemn both the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for his highly publicized comment that prisoners should be allowed to vote.
King also took to Facebook shortly before attorney general William Barr released the Mueller report, with “appropriate redactions.”
“Unfortunately, this will not deter maniac reaction from too many Democrats and their allies in the liberal media who will never accept Mueller’s conclusion that there was no evidence of collusion with Russia,” King wrote on April 17. “Trump Derangement Syndrome is a difficult affliction to overcome. Too bad they can’t let President Trump do the job the American people elected him to do. They just can’t help themselves!”
The ACLU letter concludes: “Silencing constituents for criticizing you is, to borrow from the Supreme Court, ‘censorship in its purist form’ that ‘threatens the continued vitality of free speech.’”
King’s office has until Friday, May 3, to respond before the ACLU files suit. n
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