NORMAN — Shortly after state Sen. Paul Scott, R-Duncan, announced he intended to file legislation that would end Oklahoma’s “Soon-To-Be-Sooners” program in December, which provides pregnancy and maternity services to low-income Oklahomans, he received criticism on his political Facebook page.
Jen Eastwood-Gragg expressed her concerns with the bill on the page, and Scott responded with a series of comments and memes from both his personal and political Facebook pages.
At one point, the state senator posted a photo of Eastwood-Gragg’s husband, Jeremy Gragg, with the comment “now we know why she’s upset,” implying, Gragg later told the Transcript’s sister paper The Duncan Banner, that Jen’s marriage to Jeremy was the source of her frustration. Scott posted another photo of Jeremy with the text “enough said.”
Scott’s comments elicited further criticism, and the post was removed from the page, which was later deactivated. Several of his constituents said they remain blocked from his page after Scott reactivated it. When the Banner asked Scott for a comment in December on the situation, he declined.
“Initially, when a comment [on Scott’s] page would disappear here or there, it wasn’t a big deal,” Duncan resident Eryn Bull said, adding she was able to see Scott’s political Facebook page, but did not have access to comment on it. “As it continued, it became more and more concerning, because it looked like he was structuring his own narrative and censoring the public page to make it look like people are only supportive of the things he does. He’s really kind of squashing dissenting opinion.”
As politicians use social media more frequently and innovatively to communicate directly with their constituents, questions about the legal and ethical rules surrounding their use of these platforms are being answered by federal judges.
On Jan. 7 the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that a Virginia public official, Loudoun County Board of Supervisors chair Phyllis Randall, violated Brian Davison’s First Amendment rights by banning him for 12 hours from her Facebook page. The appellate court ruled that the interactive element of Randall’s Facebook page constituted a public forum and that Davison’s speech was protected by the First Amendment.
Whether a public/political Facebook page constitutes a public forum has been debated by lower courts, but Monday’s decision was the first on the issue at the appellate level, and it could set precedent on the issue moving forward.
An attorney who argued the case, Katie Fallow of the Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, said the appellate court’s decision affirms constitutional protections on social media platforms.
“Public officials, who increasingly use social media accounts as public forums to foster speech and debate among their constituents, have no greater license to suppress dissent online than they do offline,” she said.
In May, U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled in a different case brought by the Knight Institute that President Donald Trump could not block people from his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account. Buchwald’s decision will be considered by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, although arguments in the case have yet to be scheduled.
As with all new technology, there’s a learning curve for government officials and social media. It’s one constituents are willing to acknowledge, to a point.
“I believe in the power of growth and redemption,” Eryn’s husband, Brad Bull, said. “I know there are always going to be people who are angry with you, regardless of your opinion. You need to be able to rise above that and take the high road. I would be happy to see [Scott] be less intentionally divisive in his politics and a little more polite to his constituents.”