Politics

Gov. Matt Bevin in recent months has turned to social media platforms to slam local media and share his political views directly with followers.

But as Bevin ramped up his criticism and online dispatches, he’s also blocked more than 500 Twitter users from following him, according to records released this week by ProPublica, a national investigative newsroom.

Bevin’s list of blocked social media users — obtained by ProPublica through a records request — includes many people who have shared their disdain for Bevin or President Donald Trump.

Bevin’s not alone in booting folks from following his 140-character messages. Trump has banned more than a few. Even Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer had sought to silence some tweeting gadflies.

The practice, however, has potential legal ramifications and could soon play out in court.

Attorneys for several Twitter users blocked by Trump are arguing that his account is a public forum and that the government cannot constitutionally exclude critics, The New York Times reported this week.

The attorneys issued a letter to Trump and hinted that if the blocking continues, a lawsuit could follow.

Bevin’s office released the following statement Thursday:

Gov. Bevin is a strong advocate of constructive dialogue, and he welcomes thoughtful input from all viewpoints on his social media platforms. Unfortunately, a small number of users misuse those outlets by posting obscene and abusive language or images, or repeated off-topic comments and spam. Constituents of all ages should be able to engage in civil discourse with Gov. Bevin via his social media platforms without being subjected to vulgarity or abusive trolls.

The office also issue a tweet — citing a “#FAKENEWS ALERT” — along with a video criticizing the media.

Attorney General Andy Beshear said his office, which weighs violations of the Open Records Act, has never issued an opinion “about the nature of social media and whether blocking someone violates the open records law.”

To date, no one has filed an appeal challenging a public official’s social media blockade.

Beshear declined to share his views on the matter and called it inappropriate because the office may have to tackle the issue in the future.

Beshear said he has never blocked anyone on Twitter. The Twitter account of his predecessor, Attorney General Jack Conway, had barred several followers. Beshear said he had his staff unblock those users.

Twitter As A Public Forum

Michael Conway, a Northwestern University media law professor, said the debate centers on whether the governor’s Twitter account is a public forum.

“We used to think of public forums as a physical space,” Conway said.

With the Internet, that rule no longer applies.

“When you retaliate or distinguish based upon the content of speech, that’s what becomes a first amendment problem.”

Conway made a distinction that Bevin’s Twitter handle, @GovMattBevin, is an official account for his office, unlike Trump’s preferred handle, @RealDonaldTrump.

“The other aspect would be to the extent he’s using public resources to maintain it and monitor. Then it’s a further indication it’s a government sponsored forum,” Conway said.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

Twitter blocked

Harsh Criticism Gets A Ban

Teresa Logan, of Hanson, is one of the hundreds blocked by Bevin. Under her account, @Kentucky4ever, she tweeted in February to Bevin, “You are an embarrassment to the commonwealth, #OneTermGovernor.”

Logan later realized she had been blocked. She said she sent an email to Bevin’s office about the matter, but received no response.

“I did not come back at him mean, or vicious, or cursing,” Logan told KyCIR. “That’s pretty thin-skinned to me.”

Skirting The Media

More and more, politicians use social media to take their message directly to voters, using it as a way, in some cases, to eschew interactions with the media.

Bevin’s Twitter-blocking is not especially new. For months, social media users have shared posts with the tag #bevinblocked.

Last fall, Aaron Yarmuth, the publisher of Louisville Eccentric Observer and son of Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth, wrote about his Twitter feud with Bevin:

“It is appallingly unprofessional for him and the official spokesperson for his office to obsessively communicate via 140-character messages — particularly when discussing life-or-death issues (see: U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth letter). This is not the type of behavior becoming of an elected official, but is more reminiscent of a tyrant or dictator who silences critics and projects his own insecurities onto the world around him.

Bevin has repeatedly taken to social media to decry media coverage of his office. Last week, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Bluegrass Chapter accused Bevin of character assassination and asked him to respect news media.

In late April, WFPL’s Jake Ryan sought a list of the accounts blocked by Louisville’s mayor. Fischer’s office released records showing his communications staff had blocked three Twitter accounts. Following his inquiry, Fischer’s office unblocked the accounts.

KyCIR Managing Editor Brendan McCarthy can be reached at bmccarthy@kycir.org or (502) 814.6541. June Leffler, KyCIR’s summer fellow, can be reached at jleffler@kycir.org

Brendan McCarthy is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.