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Alabama elections chief sued for blocking people on Twitter

September 19, 2018

FILE - In this Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014 file photo, Alabama Republican state Rep. John Merrill poses for portrait in Montgomery, Ala. Twitter users blocked by Merrill sued him Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018, arguing he’s blocking their right to free speech in the “modern day town square.” The lawsuit contends that Merrill is putting a “viewpoint-based restriction” to information about, and interaction with, his public office. The three plaintiffs said Merrill had blocked them from his Twitter account “because of opinions they expressed or questions they asked.” (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson,File)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Twitter users blocked by Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill sued him Wednesday, arguing he’s blocking their right to free speech in the “modern day town square.”

The lawsuit contends that Merrill is putting a “viewpoint-based restriction” on information about, and interaction with, his public office. The three plaintiffs said Merrill had blocked them from his Twitter account “because of opinions they expressed or questions they asked.”

“Essentially, what is happening here is the secretary of state uses his Twitter feed for official public functions,” American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama Director Randall Marshall said in a phone interview. “Blocking people from your public feed violates the First Amendment, in our view.” The ACLU is representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Merrill, a prolific Twitter user, has tweeted over 12,000 times from his @JohnHMerrill account, often sharing information about his office. “Because of the way the Alabama Secretary of State uses the @JohnHMerrill Twitter account, the account is a public forum under the First Amendment,” the lawsuit contends.

Merrill told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he has blocked people he considers harassing, rude or who “won’t listen to reason.” But he said he is one of the most accessible and personally available elected officials in the history of the state of Alabama.” Merrill said blocking Twitter users “doesn’t stop them from communicating with me” in other formats, including his cellphone. Merrill said he lists his cellphone number on his office business card that he hands out to the public.

“Anybody who wants to reach me can reach me whenever they want to,” Merrill said.

Merrill later issued a statement calling the lawsuit a “political hack job.”

The Alabama filing comes after a group of Twitter users succeeded in a similar 2017 lawsuit against President Donald Trump. In that case, U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald said people have a free speech right to reply directly to politicians who use their accounts as public forums to conduct official business. Trump is appealing the decision.

In the lawsuit against the Alabama elections chief, plaintiffs Kimberly Fasking, Herbert Hicks and Lynn Boothe said Merrill blocked them for comments they made or questions they asked. Fasking claimed she was blocked for asking about crossover voting. Hicks claimed he was blocked for asking about a speaking engagement. Boothe said she was blocked after making a joke about a typo on a ballot.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Montgomery asked the court to declare the “viewpoint-based” blocking declared unconstitutional.

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