Free speech is not just for the people or organizations whom our state elected officials like or with whom they agree.
That’s why we’ve gone to federal court and filed a lawsuit against state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, state Rep. John Nygren, who also chairs the powerful Joint Committee on Finance, and state Rep. Jesse Kremer, author of legislation restricting free speech on University of Wisconsin campuses.
Wisconsin politicians are increasingly using social media accounts, in their official capacity as elected officials and using state taxpayer resources, to create a public forum to communicate with the public about public policy.
Forums like these should be open and accessible to everyone, period.
But the trio of state elected officials named in our lawsuit have “blocked” One Wisconsin Now from their official state government Twitter accounts, preventing our organization from participating in these officials’ public forums. We are unable to comment on or even view the messages they have posted and the discussions they are having.
It is entirely unacceptable for state representatives like Kremer, Nygren and Vos to use Twitter to broadcast their propaganda in their official capacity, on the public’s dime, and then block the public from challenging or responding to them.
It is also, we believe, a violation of the First Amendment.
Their blocking of targeted users of Twitter such as One Wisconsin Now restricts access to their official statements otherwise available to the general public, restricts our ability to petition the government and acts as a prior restraint on speech, all without a compelling government purpose.
One Wisconsin Now maintains a verified Twitter account and uses it to promote issues of concern to the organization like voting rights, free speech and student loan debt. We also use our Twitter account to provide a counterpoint in the marketplace of ideas to the right wing and conservative ideology and messages promoted by Vos, Nygren and Kremer via their Twitter accounts associated with their positions as state legislators.
In his comments to the media, one of the legislators named in our suit, Rep. Jesse Kremer, admitted he uses his state office Twitter account to communicate with the public but declared, "It's not for Dane County liberals to carry on conversations with me ..."
As we note in our lawsuit:
“Those who are blocked from the accounts are impeded in their ability to learn information that is shared only through that account. The comment threads associated with tweets from Defendants’ Accounts and Twitter’s “mentioning” feature are important forums for discussion and alerts about Defendants’ performance as elected representatives and about government policy.”
We believe government officials can’t voluntarily offer a public forum and then block selected parties from participating without a lawful basis. We are asking the court for relief by requiring Vos, Nygren and Kremer to end the restrictions on speech they have imposed that are prohibited by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
This is a groundbreaking case, about much more than three elected officials blocking one organization. Our fight is to ensure that our rights as citizens to petition our government are respected as the forums in which we can communicate evolve and change. Everyone, regardless of their political ideology, should be able to respond to public officials on social media sites, like Twitter, just as they would if they were attending a town hall meeting.
The First Amendment didn’t predict Twitter. But it protects our equal access to it.
Scot Ross is the executive director of One Wisconsin Now.
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