WASHINGTON — Soon after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence posted a statement on Facebook expressing disappointment in the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, a long string of comments affirming his support for “traditional marriage” appeared.
What was missing: Comments from people who disagreed with his position, which were promptly being deleted. “His staff tried to make it look like he was living in an echo chamber and everyone in Indiana agreed with him,” said Andrew Markle, who, like the governor, is a Republican. Markle launched a website and Facebook account to document what he dubbed “Pencership” — i.e., Pence’s censorship.
At first, the governor’s office defended the actions as consistent with its long-standing practice of deleting “inflammatory comments that include name-calling, vulgarity or comments personally insulting to others.” But eventually, the governor apologized in a statement on his Facebook page: “On careful review … some comments were being deleted simply because they expressed disagreement with my position. I regret that this occurred and sincerely apologize to all those who were affected.”
According to a recent report from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, the courts have not yet addressed a case where a public agency has been challenged for deleting comments, so “the precise contours of citizens’ free speech rights in the context of state sponsored social media are currently unclear.” Still, legal experts say a state-sponsored social media site may be considered a “public forum,” which could give citizens the right to say almost anything they wanted under the First Amendment, with some exceptions like obscene language and inciting violence.
State government agencies and officials have embraced social media products such as Twitter and Facebook as a way to engage citizens and get the word out about their policies and services. But government use of social media comes with a host of tricky questions about how to protect state interests while also protecting the First Amendment rights of citizens and state employees.