Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia’s decision to block a commenter on Facebook might have seemed like something anyone would do on the social media site.
Don’t like what a user is saying about you? Delete them and what they have to say.
But those few clicks of a button on the Pueblo Democrat’s official page cost Colorado taxpayers $25,000 after Alexander Armijo, the man he tried to silence, successfully sued claiming his First Amendment rights had been violated.
“Social media is a new area, but a common challenge across the country as the laws governing it continue to evolve,” Garcia’s state-paid attorney, Ed Ramey, said in a written statement. “As of now all comments, including those crude, offensive or vile, are required to be published on an elected official’s page.”
But the truth of the matter is that questions around public officials’ silencing of people on social media on their official pages — personal ones are a different story — are hardly new. The Colorado attorney representing Armijo has won $75,000 for his clients in the past year by filing lawsuits against elected politicians over social media blocking.
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“I would imagine we are not done with this issue,” said Andy McNulty, the lawyer. “There would be nothing to profit off of if our public officials would just follow the Constitution.”
McNulty argues that in the digital age Facebook serves as the “modern day public square” — a place where people can discuss and learn about what’s happening in their government. Since Garcia uses his official Facebook page to share news and announcements about the Colorado legislature, McNulty says, barring someone from participating in the forum effectively blocks them out of the discourse.
Since the Colorado legislature’s Committee on Legal Services — a 10-member, bipartisan panel made up of lawmakers from both chambers — agreed to cover the costs of Garcia’s case, his attorney’s fees and settlement payout were handled by the state.
Sharon Eubanks, who leads the Colorado General Assembly’s office of legislative legal services, said the vote to cover Garcia’s costs was made April 4 and that the $25,000 came out of legislative expenses cash fund, which is made up of taxpayer dollars.
“Until case law clearly established guidelines, many more elected officials across the country will continue to face legal challenges,” Ramey said in his statement.
Questions about elected officials blocking users have risen to the highest level of politics in recent years.
President Donald Trump has been sued for blocking people on Twitter in a case that’s being appealed in federal court. A lower judge ruled that Trump cannot constitutionally prevent people from seeing what he posts on the social media platform.
McNulty also brought lawsuits on behalf of clients against former Lafayette Mayor Christine Berg and Thornton Mayor Pro Tem and City Council member Jan Kulmann. Including attorney fees, they were settled for $20,000 and $30,000 respectively, court documents confirm.
But perhaps equally important, as part of the settlements Berg, Kulmann and Garcia agreed to not block people or delete comments in the future.
In Garcia’s case, first reported by The Pueblo Chieftain, court documents allege that he deleted a comment made in November by Armijo about his handling of the firing and replacement former Senate Secretary Effie Ameen. Armijo lives in the Senate president’s district.
“Either you are grossly incompetent or knowingly violating the law,” Armijo wrote, with a link to a news article about the situation. “Step down.”
The lawsuit claims the comment was deleted a few days later and that Armijo was banned from commenting on Garcia’s page. “The banning of Mr. Armijo imposes an unconstitutional restriction on his participation in a designated public forum and his right to petition the government for redress of grievances,” the original lawsuit read.
McNulty’s three cases are not the first time the issue has been raised in Colorado.
State Sen. Ray Scott, a Grand Junction Republican, was accused — and later cleared — of ethical wrongdoing for blocking critics on social media. Television news station KKTV in Colorado Springs found several city departments were blocking users until that practice was uncovered.
Colorado lawmakers frequently complain that vulgar, racist, sexist or threatening comments are made their official social media pages.