The city of Long Beach recently halted public discussion on one of its social media pages because the comments were counterproductive and tough to manage, officials said.
The change prompted Laurie Smith, a resident who noticed it last week, to contact city management about what she believed could be an infringement on citizens’ constitutional rights. Smith noticed the switch came after an influx of replies to city press releases — posted on neighborhood social media site Nextdoor — about hot-button issues, such as the Broadway road diet and renaming of the El Dorado Neighborhood Library.
“That is basically them admitting they don’t want a dialogue,” she said in a phone interview. “That limits our freedom to speak about issues that affect us and to engage in dialogue with other residents and our city government.”
City spokeswoman Kerry Gerot said posts on the page had routinely been closed to public discussion since its inception in 2014. It wasn’t until earlier this year, when the communications department increased its staff, that she and her team decided to start opening posts up to comments.
But that experiment didn’t go so well, she said, explaining that they saw an “unintended effect” where residents would reply to a city post with questions about a specific district or neighborhood issue. In doing so, citizens often sought a response from their elected official, who could not access the page nor reply to comments which, she said, frustrated residents and made for “less fruitful” engagement.
“Communications staff tried to handle issues where possible,” she said, “however, with 55,000 followers and a very small staff, it was not a reliable tool.”
Discussion was disabled on all official city posts to Nextdoor about three weeks ago, she said. Constituents can still send a direct message via Nextdoor with questions or comments that city staff will respond to which, the city attorney’s office said, shows they have not completely blocked public interaction.
Other city-managed social media pages, including Facebook and Twitter, have posting policies that allow the moderator to filter or block comments that may be profane, defamatory, threatening or otherwise inappropriate.
Government use of social media has been a topic of much debate, largely stemming from President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter — and blocking of specific users — which spurred a lawsuit alleging he violated the First Amendment by engaging in “viewpoint-based discrimination.” Similar legal challenges are cropping up across the nation as more elected officials and government entities communicate with constituents through social media.
The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed suit against Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin as well as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, claiming they violated constituents’ rights by blocking users on social media.
But those cases differ from the situation in Long Beach, First Amendment experts say.
Lata Nott, attorney and executive director for Newseum’s First Amendment Center, said that argument carries weight when government officials or agencies are discriminating on select users based on their political views or other criticism officials disagree with.
“When you can show that, you can show the government is discriminating based on a viewpoint,” which is something Long Beach does not appear to be doing, she said.
Though she said she doesn’t believe a blanket block on discussion on the city’s Nextdoor posts is unconstitutional, it’s still one that’s not very “free-speech friendly.”
Attorney David Snyder, who serves as executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, also does not think the city is breaking any laws, but he questioned the decision to dampen public dialogue.
“If they are just not going to allow comments at all from anybody, I think that’s an unfortunate decision from a First Amendment perspective because there is a value in being able to see and hear what other residents or citizens are saying,” Snyder said. “The more discussion, the better informed we all become and the better able we are to meaningfully criticize, comment on or commend what the city is doing.”