Whatcom County Council Member censors comments on two posts on their social media pages / Letter to Rud Browne, Sandy Robson

Screenshot of Sandy Robson’s comment on an August 20, 2019 Facebook post made at 7:01 p.m. on the Rud Browne – County Councilmember Facebook page

August 25, 2019 Sandy Robson

Editor’s Note: In Facebook’s Help section it states: “When you hide a comment from a post on your Page, the comment will only be visible to the person who wrote it and their friends.” This means that the original commenter and anyone who is Facebook friends with that commenter can still see the comment. All other Facebook users who view the post will not be able to see that comment after it has been hidden.

From: Sandy Robson 

Date: August 24, 2019 at 7:09:26 PM PDT

To: RBrowne@co.whatcom.wa.us

Cc: tdonovan@co.whatcom.wa.us, BBuchana@co.whatcom.wa.us, cfrazey@co.whatcom.wa.us, ssidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us, bbrenner@co.whatcom.wa.us, tbyrd@co.whatcom.wa.us

Subject: Your recent unconstitutional censoring of my Facebook comment posted on your social media pages 

Dear Council member Browne,

I am writing you to express my concern about actions you recently have taken on social media, specifically on both your Rud Browne personal Facebook page and on your “Rud Browne – Councilmember” Facebook page.

You had posted a Tuesday, August 20, 2019 at 7:01 PM post on your personal Facebook page and you shared that same post on your official “Rud Browne – Councilmember” Facebook page. I have attached screenshots of that Facebook post you made displayed on both your personal and your “Rud Browne – Councilmember” Facebook pages. 

The headline of your post that you posted on both your personal Facebook which you also shared on your Councilmember Facebook pages reads: 

“Whatcom County Councilmembers* unanimously endorses Sheriff Bill Elfo.”

The first paragraph of your post reads:

“Recently ALL the members of the Whatcom County Council (Barry, Todd, Tyler, Carol, Barbara, Satpal and I) unanimously decided to endorse Sheriff Bill Elfo’s re-election campaign. In today’s world it’s unheard of to have both progressive and conservative elected officials come out in unanimous support of any candidate but we have for Bill.”

Your use of the terms “unanimously endorses,” and “unanimously decided,” and “unanimous support” can all easily give people the impression that you were announcing that the County Council, as a governing body, endorsed Sheriff Bill Elfo. And, from reading the comments made by some individuals under your post, that was indeed the impression they got from your post.

You used an asterisk next to the word “Councilmembers” in your headline, which, if readers noticed, was noted at the very bottom of your post. Next to the asterisk at the bottom of your post was the sentence, “*the endorsement of Bill Elfo was made by individual Councilmembers acting in their personal capacity and not on behalf of County government.”

The fact that you felt the need to place an asterisk next to the term “Whatcom County Councilmembers” correlating to the footnote at the bottom of your post, gives the appearance that you were well aware of the manner in which you were presenting something that could be misconstrued.

I posted a comment under your post on your personal Facebook page expressing my concern about the manner in which you announced the County Councilmembers having “unanimously” endorsed Bill Elfo for Sheriff.  I posted the same comment under your shared post on your “Rud Browne – Councilmember” Facebook page.

I have attached a screenshot photo of my comment. 

Shortly after I posted my comment on your post on each of your Facebook pages referenced above, apparently my comment on both of those posts was hidden. I was made aware of the fact that my comment was no longer displayed/visible under your post by a number of individuals who are not Facebook friends with me who let me know they could not see my comment, even though it was still displayed/visible to me and to individuals who are Facebook friends with me. In terms of hiding Facebook comments, it is my understanding that the person who posted the comment, and those who are Facebook friends with that person, can still see a hidden comment. However, those who are not Facebook friends with the commenter can no longer see the comment displayed after it has been hidden. 

In addition to you apparently having hidden my comment I made under your post on your personal Facebook page and under the shared post on your “Rud Browne- Councilmember” Facebook page, it appears that you have hidden numerous comments made by other commenters in the comment thread under your post on your personal Facebook page. 

According to a November 28, 2017 letter sent to Washington lawmakers from Elisabeth S. Smith, on behalf of the ACLU of Washington, it is unconstitutional for government officials to censor and/or block constituents from social media pages on which they discuss policy and other matters related to their elected office, on the basis of viewpoints. I have attached 3 screenshots (one of each page) of the ACLU’s 3-page letter.

The ACLU’s letter stated in part:

“Social media platforms where public officials allow or invite feedback from the public are limited public forums regardless of whether they are actually designated as ‘government’ accounts or ‘private’ accounts. The test of whether a given Facebook page or Twitter account falls under the limited public form rules is functional, rather than nominal. In other words, if a given social media account is used by a public official as a space to engage with the public and/or their constituents, and the public does, in fact use that account for such purposes, it is immaterial whether the account is designated as ‘official’ or not. In practice, any page on which open constituent or public feedback is solicited by a public official is subject to First Amendment limited public forum rules.”

In reading the ACLU’s letter, it is clear that when you invite your constituents to engage with you (by posting) on matters of concern to your elected office on a social media platform such as your personal Facebook page and/or your “Rud Browne – Councilmember” Facebook page, you cannot then selectively censor certain voices from participating in that discussion simply because you disagree with their viewpoint, or because you would just rather their voices/viewpoints not be displayed on your social media page/s.

My comment I posted (that was subsequently hidden) under your post titled, “Whatcom County Councilmembers* unanimously endorses Sheriff Bill Elfo,” which you posted on your personal Facebook page and shared on your “Rud Browne- Councilmember” Facebook page did not contain abusive or inappropriate language, nor did my comment appear to trigger any potential restriction against impermissible content.

Therefore, I respectfully request that you immediately restore the content/comments of mine, and of any other individuals which you appear to have hidden as a result of viewpoint-based censorship on your Facebook post. I also respectfully request that you refrain from such unconstitutional practices in the future.

Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter. 

Regards,

Sandy Robson


Below are the attachments that Sandy sent with her letter. The screenshots of the Facebook comment and posts have redactions to protect the identity of people who do not have an impact on this issue. These Facebook posts and comments are directed to a public audience.

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