ACLU files suit against John Merrill for blocking Twitter users; Merrill responds

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W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune

Alabama Sec. of State John Merrill spoke at the Cullman County Sheriff's Office Citizens' Academy Tuesday night. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

MONTGOMERY – The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama filed a lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of three Alabama citizens challenging Sec. of State John Merrill for blocking them on Twitter, claiming that as an elected government official, Merrill’s actions violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

From the ACLU:

Plaintiffs in this case are all residents and registered voters in Alabama. Kimberly Fasking, a law student at Cumberland Law School, was blocked after asking about crossover voting, while Heather Melvin Boothe was blocked for stating “Good point! Ballot has major typo.” A third plaintiff is Herbert Hicks, a farmer and educator, who was blocked after asking Merrill about a speaking engagement.

“It is upsetting to me that the Secretary of State, who primarily uses his Twitter account to disseminate information on issues related to his office, has also weaponized that account by blocking those with whom he disagrees politically,” said plaintiff Kimberly Fasking. “It is not the Secretary of State’s job to communicate only with those who agree with him, but with all of the people of the State of Alabama. I am disappointed that I no longer have ready access to information from the Secretary of State’s office in a way that allows me to engage meaningfully on topics that I find incredibly important.”

The Twitter account in question, @JohnHMerrill, is an account that Merrill uses regularly to discuss Alabama election law, inform about his duties as Alabama Secretary of State, remind the public about upcoming elections, and generally engage with the citizens of Alabama. Because of the way he uses this account, it has become an important source of news and information regarding Alabama elections and election law. After a federal judge ruled President Trump’s blocking of followers on Twitter is a violation of the First Amendment, Merrill gave a statement insisting that he will continue to block members of the public because of their political views.

ACLU of Alabama attorney Brock Boone stated, “In the digital age that we live in, John Merrill as a government official does not get to pick and choose who receives information on Twitter just like he can’t kick out his constituents for their beliefs at a town hall. This is a violation of the First Amendment. It is worrisome that the individual in charge of free and fair elections chooses to discriminate against individuals on social media. As the Secretary of State, Merrill should be using his platform to inform the public, not censure them.”

Plaintiff’s attorney Steven Gregory observed that “Political speech benefits from the highest level of protection under the First Amendment. The CEO of Twitter, along with the COO of Facebook, testified earlier this month before a committee of Congress on the issue of whether social media platforms exercise bias in their management of accounts. The First Amendment protects everyone’s right to participate in political speech without regard to political viewpoint. The Alabama Secretary of State should engage in protecting that right on his Twitter account, not suppressing it by blocking inoffensive content.”

The lawsuit seeks to stop John Merrill from blocking plaintiffs or others based upon whether he agrees or disagrees with their viewpoint. The case, Fasking v. Merrill, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on Sept. 19, 2018.

Merrill issued the following response Wednesday afternoon:

"The lawsuit filed today by the ACLU of Alabama is an attempted political hack job. Members of this liberal group are attempting to create an issue concerning lack of access to public officials that simply does not exist. As every member of the media and general public who interacts with this office knows, the most important thing for an elected official to do is to remain accessible to the people of this state. That is why I always make my cell number – 334.328.2787 – available to all Alabamians.
However, when people use a platform for public debate as a way to promote their agenda, regardless of the presentation of any factual information, I believe it is my responsibility to designate attempts to misinform the public as false. And, when users continue to publish those instances, or when they make hurtful statements about me or my family, I try to reduce the exposure to avoid misinforming members of the public.
Further, the account in question – @JohnHMerrill – is exclusively my account, while the account @alasecofstate is the state’s public account, and this account has never blocked anyone from viewing any of the posts on its page. The @JohnHMerrill account has remained a personal account since its creation, in October 2009.
I am recognized as one of the most accessible and personally available elected officials in the history of the state of Alabama, which is why I visit all 67 counties each year. It is my desire to continue to be recognized in that way as long as I have the privilege to continue to serve in public office."

ACLU Complaint20180919 by TheCullmanTribune on Scribd