A staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont says Gov. Phil Scott has missed the group’s deadline to reinstate members of the public who were blocked from his Facebook page and to stop selectively deleting comments from constituents.
Following a June 19 TNR report revealing that the ACLU-VT office received complaints from gun owners whose comments had been removed from the governor’s official Facebook page, attorney Jay Diaz sent a letter reprimanding Scott for censoring the voices of pro-gun advocates in the state.
In a statement released by the ACLU at the time, Diaz said “the governor’s censorship of constituents’ political views violates their free speech rights, undermines public trust of government, and offends our democratic values of robust and open debate.”
The group had been contacted by Vermont gun owners who said their posts had been deleted because they were critical of Scott’s decision in April to pass multiple gun control measures.
According to the ACLU, elected officials who block comments from constituents risk committing “a form of viewpoint-based censorship that violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 13 of the Vermont Constitution.”
The governor’s office responded by saying it deletes Facebook comments and blocks accounts due to disrespectful or vulgar language, along with other violations of the governor’s social media policy.
In a June 20 letter to the governor, Diaz requested that the Scott administration reinstate Vermonters who were banned from the Facebook page for various comments. The ACLU attorney also asked that the governor’s social media policy be revised “to be consistent with the First Amendment and Article 13 of the Vermont Constitution.”
While the ACLU requested action by July 3, the governor has yet to meet the group’s demands, Diaz told True North.
“We have not received a formal response,” Diaz told True North following the deadline. “We have received a small amount of records and a few informal responses. However, we’re seeking clarification on several points.”
“A failure to respond may necessitate additional action on the part of the ACLU to protect Vermonters’ constitutional right to communicate with and criticize their government officials,” he added.
Diaz granted that the Fourth of July holiday may have added to the delay from the Scott administration.
Liz Mason, a resident of Hyde Park who co-moderates the Vermont Gun Owners Facebook page along with other gun advocates, first heard about the alleged viewpoint discrimination in May, when fellow gun owners complained their posts were being deleted.
As of last week, neither she nor her fellow gun owners had been reinstated.
“To my knowledge, the Phil Scott (Facebook) pages have not unblocked anybody,” Mason told True North. “(However) the pages no longer delete comments and ban Vermonters en masse like they were doing before.”
Public reaction to the way gun owners have been treated by the Republican governor has been mixed, although some voters who supported Scott in 2016 say they regret their choice.
John Sullivan, of Brandon, is a gun owner, Scott voter and Facebook user. He said he believes the governor could lose his job on Election Day for imposing gun control on Vermonters and antagonizing them on Facebook.
“Perhaps the reason for the deletion of pro-gun posts from Gov. Scott’s Facebook page is that he’s embarrassed for being duped into signing the most worthless and unenforceable gun laws ever to see the light of day rather than implementing school security measures,” Sullivan told True North.
“Unfortunately, he’s one of many that the advocates of gun control have managed to dupe since the first school shooting,” he said.
Two months after the Feb. 14 school massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Scott signed S.55 into law. The legislation imposed background checks on private gun sales, set a 10-round magazine limit for rifles and 15 rounds for pistols, banned bump stocks, and raised the firearms purchase age to 21 — unless the person is age 18 and has passed a state-approved hunter safety course.
While the bill was signed in the name of making schools safe, some critics, including Sullivan, say S.55 does nothing to protect students from school shootings. Sullivan told True North he has yet to see school access control, the use of metal detectors or armed security personnel in the Rutland County schools in his area.
“None of the things that would prevent these acts of barbarism (have be implemented),” Sullivan said.
“If these things had been done after the first shooting, most, if not all, of the children who have died might be alive today. Maybe it’s finally time to ignore the banners and do something real to protect the children.”
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.