A federal lawsuit has been filed against Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, by two Grays Harbor County residents who claim Walsh’s “viewpoint-based” blocking of individuals from his Facebook page violates their First Amendment rights.
Jeff Nichols of Montesano and Gilbert Myers of Aberdeen filed the suit in Western District Court on Wednesday.
“This is a stunt they played where they got on my campaign page and behaved uncivilly,” said Walsh. “I warned them to stop it and they did not, so I blocked them, as I would with anyone who behaved that way.”
A statement from the two men’s attorney, Billie R. Morelli of Concrete, read in part: “Walsh may feel the First Amendment does not apply while running for re-election. However a cursory look at his Facebook page makes clear he has used the page in his official capacity as representative for years to communicate as representative long before any campaigning this current election season.”
The statement continued, “This lawsuit also contends the banning of dissenting voices violates the rights of everyone who views Rep. Walsh’s page because (he) is excluding from that forum political speech critical of him that would otherwise be read, thus distorting the expressive forum.”
In May, a Manhattan Federal District Court judge ruled President Donald Trump’s practice of blocking his critics on his Twitter account violated the blocked plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.
“They’re hiding a lot behind a misreading of a situation involving Trump, which was a different fact set than here,” said Walsh. He added that legislators in Washington State do not have “official” social media accounts.
“In Washington anything you see that is a legislator on social media is considered a campaign tool and not an official platform,” he said. “The caucuses have official social media platforms, but not individual legislators.”
Walsh said he found it “interesting that the ACLU is not involved in their stunt. If there was any merit to it I would expect the ACLU or some similar group to be involved.”
ACLU legislative director Elisabeth S. Smith sent a letter to all Washington legislators in November 2017, warning lawmakers that blocking and/or censoring constituents from social media pages based on the viewpoints of those constituents was unconstitutional, calling social media platforms “the new town square” and stating that “viewpoint-based censorship on such platforms violates the First Amendment.”
Walsh said the timing of the suit makes him believe it may be some “tit-for-tat” for his perceived involvement in the recent Glen Morgan-backed mailers that urged voters to write in Teresa Purcell over Walsh’s current Democratic challenger, Erin Frasier.
“I really want to emphasize Glen Morgan’s (mailers) were an independent expenditure and I had nothing to do with it. That didn’t help me and I had nothing to do with it,” said Walsh. “But (Nichols and Myers) are partisans and they clearly are part of this. They can’t justify their dirty tricks on a false premise that I was secretly involved with Glen Morgan.”
The suit asks the court for an injunction requiring Walsh to “cease his unlawful practice of censoring … comments on his Facebook page,” and to unblock Nichols and Myers so they can comment on the Facebook page.