BELLE CHASSE -- From President Donald Trump to local parish presidents, social media is quickly becoming the preferred mode of communication for government leaders.
But the American Civil Liberties Union says it’s also becoming a principal battleground for First Amendment free-speech rights and illegal government censorship. Nowhere locally has that been more apparent than Plaquemines Parish, according to ACLU Louisiana’s lead attorney Bruce Hamilton.
Since July, the organization has received a raft of complaints alleging that local government officials are removing critical comments from the official parish Facebook page.
That prompted the ACLU to send Parish President Amos Cormier III a letter Aug. 31, calling on his administration to “immediately cease your unlawful practice of censoring constituent comments."
The letter says the parish Facebook page qualifies as a “limited public forum,” where off-topic, vulgar or discriminatory language can be limited, but “viewpoint discrimination is never permissible because it violates the First Amendment right to free speech.”
“Accordingly, we ask that you immediately cease your unlawful practice of censoring constituent comments and undertake a review of all people whose posting privileges have been censored," says the letter from ACLU Louisiana Executive Director Alanah Odoms Hebert.
The controversy in Plaquemines began in July when the parish posted about a controversial coastal restoration project, a proposed river sediment diversion that Cormier has vociferously opposed and characterized as a freshwater diversion.
The parish’s post suggested that critics of the project should complain to the state, not the parish and stated they should “recall their 8th grade civics class where they learned that the state government is separate from the parish government.”
That offended resident Kevin Edgecombe, an avowed Cormier critic.
“More or less, they compared the citizens to 8th graders,” he said.
Edgecombe took screen shots of some of the dozens of comments that followed, some saying the parish was insulting residents’ intelligence, others disagreeing and several complaining about various wetlands and park projects planned in the parish. All of the posts -- including one from Chip Kline, head of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, replying to Edgecombe and explaining that the parish administration “supported” all of the selected projects -- were removed by the Facebook page administrator, Edgecombe said.
“I have since been blocked from posting anything on the parish (Facebook) page,” Edgecombe said. “That's censorship. You can't tell people you disagree with, 'Hey, we're not going to listen to you. You can't put anything out anymore.'”
Two other parish residents, Logan Lott and Tracy Stein Irby, said they were also blocked by the parish from commenting.
Cormier’s public information officer, Tammy Lynn Bradley, identified herself in one post as the “Plaquemines Parish Government” Facebook page administrator. Bradley referred questions to Cormier, who said he had not reviewed the letter sent last week by the ACLU.
“I certainly will do some of my own legal research on that,” Cormier said. “I am just not familiar with what laws govern Facebook posts and I’ll have to look into it.”
The ACLU says those laws are clear, and cited multiple court cases in its letter to Cormier that “repeatedly affirmed the First Amendment significance of social media.” Hamilton said private Facebook users can block and remove comments as they see fit, but government entities may not, unless those comments specifically violate their publicly disclosed social media policies.
Hamilton said Plaquemines Parish does not appear to have such a policy.