Flores (copy)

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, seen here speaking to Waco Republicans in October, has blocked some constituents from viewing his social media accounts. At least 391 comments on his Facebook page have been deleted, according to numbers compiled by a software engineer tracking the page.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson, file

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, has blocked certain constituents from interacting with his social media accounts, an action not uncommon among politicians, though possibly at odds with the First Amendment amid a national discussion regarding free speech.

More than a dozen constituents throughout the 17th Congressional District in Waco, Austin and College Station told the Tribune-Herald they were blocked from accessing Flores’ Facebook or Twitter accounts which indicate he is a member of Congress.

Bill Gaventa, a Woodway pastor, said he was blocked from Flores’ Facebook page after he wrote a Tribune-Herald op-ed criticizing Flores for what Gaventa views as inaccessibility to his approximately 760,000 constituents.

“It’s frustrating and, I think, ultimately defeating for him,” Gaventa said.

Flores, a four-term congressman, is not the only elected official accused of silencing critics on social media. President Donald Trump, a frequent Twitter user, has blocked dozens of people, according to New York Magazine. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan blocked 450 people from his Facebook page, the Washington Post reported in early 2017. And Phyllis J. Randall, chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors in Virginia, was sued for temporarily blocking a constituent from her Facebook page.

In an email, Flores spokesman Andre Castro said social media is used “to publish useful information and to update constituents on the work he is doing in Congress.”

“In general, Congressman Flores believes that commenters should follow the ‘golden rule’ of treating others in a way that the commenter would want to be treated,” Castro said.

Comments written on Flores’ social media accounts “do not necessarily reflect the views of the Congressman or the members of his team,” according to his policy, and threats are forwarded to law enforcement.

Comments containing profanity, name-calling, repetitive complaints, false information or accusations, advertising and references to campaigns or elections may be deleted, Castro said. Comments by non-constituents may also be deleted, and anyone who violates Flores’ office’s policy may be blocked.

Dustin Weins, owner of iRadioWaco and a former Waco City Council candidate, said he was blocked after asking Flores about his stance on same-sex marriage.

“I don’t recall any time I used any foul language or was disrespectful in any way, and I was still blocked,” Weins said.

Elizabeth Berigan, a College Station physician, said she has written Facebook comments about health care and other issues.

“I can’t correspond with him and I can’t interact with him,” Berigan said. “I think taking off certain comments is just wrong. He only deletes what he doesn’t want to hear.”

In response to questions about Flores’ social media policies and why some people are blocked, Castro said Flores and his team are “operating under a heightened sense of awareness” in light of the June shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, and death threats made against Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai.

Flores himself has received threats and “hostile materials” mailed to his home, Castro said in the email, though it wasn’t clear how Flores’ safety and threats he has received relate to his decisions to block some constituents.

Flores’ social media policy bothered software engineer Matthew Ludlum so much he created a Facebook page called “The Flores Filter,” which posts each comment deleted from Flores’ posts.

Ludlum, from North Austin, lives one block within Flores’ district and leaves the district each morning while walking his dog.

“The one thing I want to avoid in (the “Flores Filter” Facebook page) is injecting any sort of opinion or anything that really isn’t factual,” he said. “These are comments that are deleted at some point, and I think it does a disservice to have them deleted.”

According to numbers compiled by Ludlum, Flores has deleted at least 391 of 1,412 written comments since Nov. 26, as of Thursday. Some of the deleted comments contain profanity, while others simply voice disagreement.

“This irresponsible legislation increases the deficit and heavily burdens the middle and lower class. Very disappointing,” said one deleted Facebook post referencing the GOP tax plan.

“In 2017 the party of fiscal responsibility and reduction of the welfare state gave corporate America a huge welfare windfall and the working people of America a $1.5 trillion addition to the national debt, because the GOP needed a win. Remember that on the first Tuesday of November 2018,” another deleted comment read.

“Repeal Obamacare as promised the last 8+ years,” said another.

A deleted Dec. 17 post simply said, “I do not agree with this. You are not representing my interests as a constituent.”

Profanity, threats

Castro sent the Tribune-Herald several screenshots of other removed posts, which included profanity, sexual references and threats. He said constituents blocked on social media may still contact Flores’ office via phone, email, mail, fax and face-to-face meetings, which are recorded.

Those blocked on Facebook are unable to access Flores’ online constituent forums streamed live on the platform. The online forums have taken the place of traditional town hall-style meetings Flores formerly held with constituents within his district, leaving those blocked without access to such informational sessions.

It is unclear whether legal violations occurred because of the blocks. Gary Krupkin, a Richardson lawyer and member of the First Amendment Lawyers Association, said politicians who block constituents from their official accounts are “skating on pretty thin ice.”

“Simply because we don’t like the way somebody says something, or the government doesn’t like the way somebody says something, that doesn’t mean the government can unilaterally ban them from saying it,” Krupkin said.

Randall, the county board of supervisors chairwoman in Virginia, was sued by a constituent in 2016 for blocking him for 12 hours after he alleged corruption by the local school board in a Facebook comment, Slate reported.

A federal judge ruled that Randall blocked her constituent, Brian C. Davison, “because she was offended by his criticism of her colleagues in the County government.”

“By prohibiting (Davison) from participating in her online forum because she took offense at his claim that her colleagues in the County government had acted unethically, (Randall) committed a cardinal sin under the First Amendment,” the judge wrote.

Another judge, however, issued an opinion in the same case stating “the law is less than settled as to whether … (Davison’s) right was violated when those postings were removed or when (he) was prevented from posting his comments.”

Blocks on social media

Castro said there are no “federal laws, regulations and/or non-appealable legal rulings” preventing elected officials from blocking people’s access to politicians’ social media accounts.

The Knight First Amendment Institute, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization at Columbia University, has called on Trump to unblock his critics on Twitter. Cases of politicians blocking constituents on a more local level are not uncommon either, Krupkin said.

“First Amendment attorneys are pretty few and far between,” he said. “It’s not something that you normally see when you go and look for attorneys. And I think that a lot of government officials rely on the inability of their constituents not to be able to hire an attorney in doing some of the things that they do.”

Phillip has covered higher education for the Tribune-Herald since November 2015.

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