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Politicians blocking people on social media spurs debate

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Brady McCombs, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY -- An emerging debate about whether elected officials violate people's free speech rights by blocking them on social media is spreading across the U.S. as groups sue or warn politicians to stop the practice.

The American Civil Liberties Union this week sued Maine Gov. Paul LePage and sent warning letters to Utah's congressional delegation. It followed recent lawsuits against the governors of Maryland and Kentucky and President Donald Trump.

Trump's frequent and often unorthodox use of Twitter and allegations he blocks people with dissenting views has raised questions about what elected officials can and cannot do on their official social media pages.

Politicians at all levels increasingly embrace social media to discuss government business, sometimes at the expense of traditional town halls or in-person meetings.

"People turn to social media because they see their elected officials as being available there and they're hungry for opportunities to express their opinions and share feedback," said Anna Thomas, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Utah. "That includes people who disagree with public officials."

Most of the officials targeted so far -- all Republicans -- say they are not violating free speech but policing social media pages to get rid of people who post hateful, violent, obscene or abusive messages.

A spokeswoman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called the Aug. 1 lawsuit against him "frivolous" and said his office has a clear policy and will "remove all hateful and violent content" and "coordinated spam attacks."

The ACLU accused Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin of blocking more than 600 people on Facebook and Twitter. His office said he blocks people who post "obscene and abusive language or images, or repeated off-topic comments and spam."

Spokesmen for Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Mia Love, who were singled out by the ACLU, said people are rarely blocked and only after they have violated rules posted on their Facebook pages to prevent profanity, vulgarity, personal insults or obscene comments.

"We are under no obligation to allow Sen. Hatch's Facebook page to be used as a platform for offensive content or misinformation," spokesman Matt Whitlock said.

Katie Fallow, senior staff attorney at Columbia University's Knight First Amendment Institute, which sued Trump last month, said there's no coordinated national effort to target Republicans. The goal is that all elected officials must stop blocking people on social media.