first amendment

Montgomery County Elected Official Sued for Social Media Snubs

A lawsuit was filed this week by constituents of Republican Joe Gale, who they claim has blocked their accounts on Twitter and deleted their comments on Facebook. President Donald Trump lost a similar legal battle.

Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale got into hot water last month when he posted a statement calling anti-police brutality and Black Lives Matter protests "urban domestic terror."

A Pennsylvania state representative has even proposed that the state legislature call for his impeachment, claiming Gale "promotes racist conspiracy theories."

Now, some of his constituents have sued Gale in federal court claiming he has violated their First Amendment right to free speech. Gale, the lawsuit claims, has blocked their accounts on Twitter and deleted their comments on Facebook.

Seven people and two companies filed the suit against Gale, which is the first local instance of a legal battle over free speech on social media involving an elected official. In recent years, President Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been sued for blocking people on Twitter from seeing their accounts.

A federal judge last year found Trump had violated the First Amendment rights of Americans who he blocked on Twitter. The ruling was upheld in March by an appeals court.

Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York City, was sued last year by a former New York state assemblyman and another person for blocking them from following her on Twitter. She apologized and unblocked them before her case was heard in federal court last November.

The Montgomery County residents and businesses who have sued Gale claim that they too have had their rights stifled by Gale. An attorney for the plaintiffs said she believes this is the first case of its kind in Pennsylvania.

"Numerous other courts around the country – including the Second Circuit in the Trump Twitter case – have held that when a public official selectively deletes comments or blocks users from the interactive spaces of their official social media pages, that violates the First Amendment," attorney Samantha Harris said. "Notwithstanding Commissioner Gale’s disingenuous efforts – after the fact – to repackage his social media pages as private rather than official, he used and continues to use those pages to communicate with his constituents and the public in a way that he can only do by virtue of his position as a public official."

Harris said the plaintiffs are filing a motion before federal Judge Timothy Savage of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania requesting an immediate stop to Gale's blocking and deletions on the social media platforms.

After Trump's loss in the appeals court last year, the ruling against him was widely seen as precedent for a growing number of cases involving public officials and their use of social media.

Gale, in a statement to NBC10, said "this lawsuit is a totally frivilous political stunt."

He said he has "the legal right to block agitators, anarchists and agent provocateurs who like to troll and dog-pile on my personal and campaign social media accounts. Unlike Marxist Democrats and cowardly Republicans, I will not tolerate or allow the radical-leftist mob to harass, intimidate or bully me."

Gale, who is in his second term on the three-person county commission in suburban Philadelphia, added that he has contacted the police because of violent threats to his personal safety.

Following his statement last month about the weekslong protests in Philadelphia, a rally was held outside his Plymouth Meeting home.

Amid the backlash, Philadelphia 76ers player Tobias Harris posted a petition calling for Gale's ouster. Gale told NBC10 that he didn't care about the petition.

"I have not watched the Sixers since Allen Iverson left," he said.

Gale has styled his politics in the mold of Trump. He describes himself as an outsider furious with the two-party political system, insulting liberals and progressives while dismissing Republicans in southeastern Pennsylvania as powerless.

"They're useless," he said in a 2016 interview. "I don't need them."

He serves as the Republican minority commissioner alongside two Democratic commissioners in Montgomery County, which is Pennsylvania's third-largest by population.

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