A City Government Tries to Figure Out Social Media Rules After Legal Challenge

Salt Lake City has to reconsider its social media policies following a federal lawsuit.

Salt Lake City has to reconsider its social media policies following a federal lawsuit. Vasin Lee/Shutterstock

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STATE AND LOCAL ROUNDUP | California fails to pass bill for clergy reporting sexual abuse … Potential hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast this week … Maine considers forming a public utility monopoly.

The city council of Salt Lake City is considering a new social media policy, prompted by a federal lawsuit brought against current and former councilmembers, the current and former mayor, and city staff by a man who says he was blocked from posting on their social media channels. Aaron Johnson, who was briefly a candidate for mayor in 2018, said the city had established a “sanctuary city for censorship” and violated his rights by hiding his contrarian comments from public pages. “What this case is really about, my case, is about political bias. Salt Lake City has allowed individuals in public office to block people who criticize them because they didn’t like their criticism,” Johnson said. When the lawsuit was filed in 2018, Matthew Rojas, a city spokesperson, said the lawsuit lacked merit because it claims Johnson has been blocked from city-controlled pages when he has not been. “We don’t block individuals...We also don’t delete comments. We will hide comments if they contain foul language or threats,” Rojas said. The ACLU of Utah has warned elected officials not to block constituents, saying they receive a “steady stream” of complaints from people dealing with state or local government bans on social media. “That’s where you’re seeing more of the friction happening between constituents who are trying to comment on the Facebook or Twitter accounts primarily of elected leaders and seeing that their viewpoints or access are being blocked and they’re wondering what their rights are,” said Jason Stevenson of the Utah ACLU. “This is a nexus of new technology, new ways to interact with elected leaders and the law is slowly catching up to figure out what are the boundaries for free speech and public forums on the internet,” he said. Constituents may soon have more of a legal ground on which to stand in cases brought against governments for blocking them. The discussion in the Salt Lake City Council fell on the same day as a came on the same day a federal appeals court ruled that Donald Trump cannot block his critics on Twitter. [Associated Press; Salt Lake Tribune; The Economist]

CLERGY REPORTING | In California, a bill that would mandate clergy members report child abuse committed by their peers to authorities, even if they learned of it during confession, has been put on hold due to opposition from the Catholic church. California law requires clergy to report child abuse, but there is an exception for knowledge obtained during a confession with a priest. State Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat, wrote a bill to remove that exception, which passed the Senate with near unanimous support but did not have enough support in the House. “Senate Bill 360 has one purpose only, not to restrict faith, but to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable of the faithful: children. I strongly believe that for any institution self-policing and self-investigation are not effective ways to combat alleged abuse, as our own state Legislature has found,” said Hill, referencing the recent reform efforts in the state legislature that changed how the body investigates sexual misconduct from its own members. The Catholic Conference of California organized to oppose the bill in the House, saying church tradition has always kept what is said during confession confidential. The organization said that while the church “agrees with the general principle that all youth should be protected from sexual abuse,” everyone, including clergy, should have “the right to confess sins anonymously and confidentially.” [FOX 40; KTLA]

HURRICANE BARRY | A storm off the Gulf Coast is expected to develop into Tropical Storm Barry—or maybe Hurricane Barry—and make landfall this weekend, according to predictions from the National Hurricane Center. The current track predicts the storm will come to shore near Morgan City, Louisiana, a particular concern because the Mississippi River water levels are unusually high for the summer. The storm could make landfall with tropical-storm-force or hurricane-force winds, accompanied by 10-20 inches of rain in some places. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency on Wednesday and one fear is that storm surge could push water over the river levees. “This is going to be a very significant weather event. It would be, in and of itself, but if you look at the fact that we got the elevated Mississippi River and we’ve had more rainfall in Louisiana over the last several months than normal, you know that it makes it much harder to deal with events of this type,” Edwards said. Because of the storm’s proximity to shore, some areas, including New Orleans, have already seen a significant amount of rain, leading to flash flooding. In Baton Rouge, city maintenance workers have been clearing drainage systems and placing sandbags in anticipation of heavy rains. “There’s not really much sandbagging I could do because I’d have to sandbag the entire house,” said one city resident. [The Advocate; NOLA.com; AL.com; The Advocate]

PUBLIC UTILITY | Legislators in Maine are considering buying and then consolidating the state’s two investor-owned electric utilities into one nonprofit monopoly. State Rep. Seth Berry, a Democrat, has proposed a bill that would force the two companies, Central Maine Power and Emera, to sell their assets to the new public utility. He  cited issues with the companies’ billing practices, reliability, and meager use of renewable energy as the rationale for the change. “We want a utility that will keep the costs down and the lights on and put its Maine customers and workers first. Our current utilities have failed us in every respect, with the clear exception of our consumer-owned utilities,” Berry said. But Jake Posik, of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, said a public utility would only make the situation worse. “If Mainers are upset about billing practices from a private power provider, just wait until this organization is run by government. It will be even less efficient and responsive to people’s needs,” Posik said. Emera spokesperson Judy Long, also cautioned that “the cost for the people of Maine to purchase the state’s two investor-owned utilities could be $7 billion to $9 billion, and that doesn’t include the costs of a new government power bureaucracy.” Even so, Berry seems to have tentative support from Gov. Janet Mills, who signed a bill last week instructing the Maine Public Utilities Commission to study the concept of a publicly-owned utility. [The Heartland Institute; Boothbay Register; Bangor Daily News; Associated Press]

MOVING PRIMARY DATE | Republican legislators in Ohio want to move the state’s 2020 presidential primary date to March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, prompting outcry from Democrats that such a move would decrease turnout and create chaos as polls compete with parades. In a letter to Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, 24 Democratic lawmakers expressed concerns about the change. “St. Patrick’s Day is a huge day of celebration in our districts and we are very concerned about the effect this will have on people’s ability to vote that day...People who otherwise would have been poll workers may have an annual commitment to help with St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Buildings that otherwise would have served as polling locations may have events planned for the holiday instead,” they wrote. LaRose responded that he wasn’t concerned, and emphasized that Ohio has a month of early voting. “No matter the date finally chosen, I can affirm that the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, as well as all of Ohio’s 88 county board of elections and 8,000-plus poll workers, will be ready to successfully administer safe, fair, and accessible elections,” he wrote. [Toledo Blade; Cleveland.com]

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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