Politics & Government

Some SC lawmakers block constituents on Facebook, Twitter, opening door to lawsuits

awilks@thestate.com

NOTE: The Buzz is The State’s weekly, sometimes irreverent look at happenings in S.C. politics and state government.

State Rep. Neal Collins has screenshots of the messages and the memes, pages and pages of them.

Some depict the Pickens Republican’s face crudely photoshopped into politically problematic situations, such as onto the body of an NFL player protesting the national anthem or the body of a man burning the American flag. Other memes picture him with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or label him a “closet” or “undocumented” Democrat.”

On his “Rep. Neal Collins” Facebook page, critics have sent the third-term House member a picture of a noose and called him words that more literally describe parts of the male and female anatomy.

Collins says comments like those have led him to block eight people from his official page, which has nearly 4,500 followers.

But now, Collins is facing a threatened lawsuit from three of them who say the blocks infringe on their free-speech rights.

And more lawsuits could follow in the wake of a series of court decisions that found online forums, such as politicians’ social media pages, are the 21st century edition of the old-fashioned soapbox or town hall — and deserve the same First Amendment protections.

Several state lawmakers acknowledged to The State this week they have blocked constituents from their Twitter and Facebook accounts, but only after those followers harassed or threatened them, used foul language or frequently spammed them with criticism.

Meanwhile, blocked constituents say they did nothing wrong and were only questioning their representatives’ votes. They complain their legislators are refusing to hear from constituents who disagree with them.

“To not even listen to a constituent seems pretty appalling,” said outgoing Charleston County Democratic Party chairman Brady Quirk-Garvan, who was blocked by his former lawmaker, GOP Rep. Lin Bennett. “To me, blocking people puts up these walls and puts us further into these bubbles of isolation.”

The legal justification for blocking a constituent is shaky, especially after recent court rulings against a Virginia school board member and President Donald Trump.

At a caucus meeting last month, House Republicans were advised to unblock anyone who had not harassed or threatened them. Otherwise, they were advised by the House’s top attorney, Michael Anzelmo, they should be prepared to spend their own money to defend themselves in a free-speech lawsuit.

Such advice has led some lawmakers — including Collins — to consider shutting down their professional pages altogether, rather than suffer trolls. But they add that would be a shame for their thousands of constituents who rely on those pages for updates from the State House.

Constituents who were blocked say they weren’t harassing or threatening their legislators.

Abbie Mobley, a 32-year-old technical writer from West Ashley, said she was blocked by her representative, Bennett, last November after she criticized Bennett’s support of the Personhood Act. That bill would outlaw virtually all abortions in South Carolina.

Bennett also blocked Mobley’s mother after she liked one of those tweets, Mobley said.

“She’s in the State House representing me. I don’t understand why she won’t engage me,” Mobley said. “It’s just a lost opportunity to engage with a constituent.”

Bennett said she normally checks to make sure the people she blocks aren’t her constituents, who she says can reach her by email, anyway. She says she considers her Facebook and Twitter accounts to be personal in nature, though she lists herself as a House member on both and uses them to discuss politics.

She said she has blocked people for cursing, name-calling and spamming her with criticism.

“I don’t think we deserve that kind of disrespect and horrible treatment,” Bennett said. “I’ll shut down my account before I tolerate that.”

State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, says she blocks argumentative and negative people from Facebook and Twitter accounts she considers personal in nature, while conducting only minor crowd control on her political Facebook page.

Shealy says she regularly posts her rules on her page: Be civil, and don’t curse.

“As long as you behave, you can stay,” she said. “My grandson doesn’t need to see people cursing at his grandmother.”

But a reckoning is coming for lawmakers who don’t unblock their constituents, says Tom Fernandez, the Berkeley County lawyer who sent Collins a cease-and-desist letter last month and threatened to file a lawsuit if the House member doesn’t unblock his clients.

“This is a warning shot from me to all these representatives, and probably a warning shot from anyone who loves the First Amendment to all of these lawmakers,” said Fernandez.

Fernandez said Collins blocked his main client, Allan Quinn, after Quinn criticized him for supporting the gas-tax hike years ago.

Collins, an attorney, said he is studying case law and deciding how he will respond to Fernandez’ letter.

He said he blocked Quinn after Quinn spammed his page with misinformation and “blatant lies.” For example, Collins said, he never voted for the gas-tax, and in fact adamantly opposed it.

Collins said he agrees with courts who have ruled the First Amendment applies to politicians’ social media pages just as it applies to their town hall meetings.

“The problem is, in a town hall, I wouldn’t let somebody threaten me, harass me, swear or try to take over the town hall,” he said. “Common sense and my legal background tell me there have to be lines.”

Buzz Bites

Ups and downs for future S.C. politicians

Late last month, Rena Haley, the daughter of former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, failed to make the runoff in Clemson University’s student government elections — despite getting the endorsement of the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump.

Haley was running for student body vice president along with running mate Collin Huskey.

However, the son of Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, fared better during the University of South Carolina’s student elections Wednesday. Luke Rankin Jr. won election as student body president along with running mate Sophie Darvish.

Darvish is no stranger to state politics either. The junior finance major previously interned for S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster.

‘One big pot party’

Lowcountry residents this week received an anonymous mailer accusing state Sen. Tom Davis of trying to “turn South Carolina into one big pot party.”

The mailer featured a photoshopped image of the Beaufort Republican clad in a Hawaiian shirt and carrying a huge bag of marijuana, ahead of a backdrop of women in bikinis. It follows Davis’ efforts to legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina.

The mailer drew the scorn of politicians and re-ignited a debate about anonymous “dark money” groups that seek to affect elections.

Davis jokingly dismissed the mailer on the Senate floor Wednesday. “I could never get women like that to attend a party of mine.”

Staff writer Bristow Marchant contributed to this story.

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.


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