Gov. Matt Bevin’s office violated open records law by refusing to provide the list of keywords it uses to filter Facebook comments, according to the Office of the Attorney General.
The OAG ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, which asked for “all keywords used by the Governor’s Office to filter comments from appearing on Governor Matt Bevin’s official Facebook account.”
The governor’s official Facebook page uses keyword filtering “to avoid being overrun with profane, obscene, or clearly off-topic comments,” according to an affidavit provided to the OAG.
Under this ruling, Bevin’s office has to provide the ACLU with a print-out or screenshot of the list of terms that prompts Facebook to automatically hide comments.
Woody Maglinger, a spokesman for Bevin, said in a statement that they plan to appeal the ruling.
“It’s no surprise that the Attorney General continues to politicize the Open Records Act and ignore prior opinions from his office,” he wrote.
The ACLU declined to comment.
Monday’s ruling focuses only on Facebook comment filters, but there is a larger debate — and ongoing litigation — about how lawmakers limit access to their social media as a whole.
For example, Bevin’s blocking of constituents on his Twitter and Facebook pages is the subject of a federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU.
The suit is on behalf of two Kentuckians, Mary Hargis and Drew Morgan, who say they were “permanently blocked from engaging in political speech on the governor’s official Facebook page and Twitter accounts, respectively, after posting comments that were not obscene, abusive, or defamatory,” according to a statement from the ACLU.
They’re not alone. KyCIR reported in June that Bevin blocks more than 500 people from following his Twitter account. ProPublica found that Bevin blocked more accounts, by a wide margin, than any other governor who provided a list of blocked accounts.
On Monday, state Rep. Attica Scott, a Democrat from Louisville, reported on Twitter that Bevin had blocked her. Scott wrote, “@GovMattBevin I do not care at all for your politics and cannot imagine how the only Black woman in the Kentucky legislature is a threat to you.”
Amanda Stamper, a spokeswoman for Bevin, said in a statement, “No one from the Governor’s Office knowingly blocked Rep. Scott on Twitter. After we learned about the issue this morning, we unblocked her immediately and changed the password to the account.”
Scott said she “can’t believe” that she was blocked by accident, but says she doesn’t know what could have caused the action.
“I’ve been consistent in my criticism for years now,” she said. “Nothing I have posted at him is new, including anything I may have posted in the last week.”
Scott blocks a handful of Twitter accounts herself. But she said she only blocks accounts that threaten her and she is opposed to politically-motivated social media blocking.
After a request from WFPL in April revealed that Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer blocked three accounts, his office unblocked those Tweeters. President Donald Trump is facing a lawsuit concerning his practice of blocking followers on Twitter.
While the larger question of social media blocking is being sorted out in federal court, the OAG’s ruling addresses one narrow aspect of the issue — Facebook comment filters.
The Attorney General’s opinions are not considered law, and an agency disagreeing with the AG’s conclusion has to appeal in civil court by suing the requester.
The governor’s office argued that providing the list of terms would render its filter moot. Commenters would be able to evade the filter by avoiding those specific words, requiring officials to “review each Facebook comment individually” and monitor the page “at all times of the day and night, lest it be overrun with profane, obscene or clearly off-topic comments.”
The ACLU, in its statement about the ongoing federal lawsuit, argues that limiting access to a lawmaker’s social media accounts is tantamount to limiting free speech.
“The First Amendment does not allow the government to exclude speakers from a public forum because it disagrees with their viewpoint,” said legal director William Sharp. “Even when the government seeks to enforce permissible limits in such a forum, permanently excluding individuals for violating those limits goes too far.”