AP NEWS

Federal judge: Robin Vos, top Republicans violated liberal group’s free speech rights

January 19, 2019

A federal judge Friday ruled state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other top Republicans violated a liberal group’s constitutional rights when they blocked it from following them on Twitter.

The decision from U.S. District Judge William Conley siding with One Wisconsin Now is the latest indicator of the American legal system’s emerging views on social media’s role in democracy and to what extent political speech is protected there.

OWN sued Republican lawmakers in 2017 after three of them — Vos, R-Rochester; Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who leads the state’s powerful budget-writing committee; and former Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum — blocked the group on Twitter.

Conley’s ruling, which found OWN’s free speech on a public forum was violated, follows a similar case involving President Donald Trump, who has previously blocked followers on Twitter. In that case the court found the president had violated the blocked users’ constitutional rights and ordered him to unblock them.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled definitively on any such cases, but it has argued social media represents a “vast democratic forum.”

Conley ruled the Republican lawmakers in the case blocked OWN’s account specifically because of its liberal political views, a violation of free speech on a public forum.

The government is very limited in its ability to regulate speech, and Conley was clear that in almost no instance can it regulate speech on the basis of its content. If it does, it must meet a high level of scrutiny that Vos, Nygren and Kremer were not able to meet.

Conley wrote the Republicans “directly or indirectly” indicated they did not approve of OWN’s liberal viewpoint and that it contributed to blocking OWN’s account.

For example, court documents show Kremer, who views his Twitter account as a forum for constituents, said it “is not for Dane County liberals to carry on conversations with me,” adding, “Dane County is obviously a very liberal, socialist area, progressive area.”

Vos has two Twitter accounts: one for his role as speaker and one as representative of the 63rd Assembly District, which is the account that blocked OWN on Twitter. Vos has maintained he cannot recall why he blocked OWN.

Nygren in the court filing said he blocked the OWN account for its “crude comments on Wisconsin politics,” although he was unable to identify any such comments.

Conley’s decision points to a free speech violation, however, the court has yet to determine how to resolve the dispute, whether through forcing the Republican lawmakers to unblock OWN or through other means.

OWN executive director Scot Ross in a statement said the ruling is a victory for open, transparent and accountable government.

“Robin Vos and his cohorts have tried to run the Legislature with unprecedented secrecy, to hide their actions from public scrutiny and suppress the voices of dissent at every turn,” Ross said. “This decision is a clear statement to Vos and others that it’s the people’s government, not their government.”

Vos and Nygren didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment.

The decision marked the second victory for OWN in as many days, with a federal judge Thursday striking down portions of the GOP’s lame-duck legislation limiting early voting.

AP RADIO
Update hourly