USA Today had an interesting piece last week about an emerging controversy in Indiana. And it could have implications nationwide. Governor Mike Pence maintains a Facebook page in his capacity as Governor. Check it out at facebook.com/GovernorMikePence. After the Supreme Court’s rulings on gay marriage earlier this week, the Governor took to his Facebook page to restate his belief that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, etc. Given the Governor’s track record, that couldn’t have come as a surprise. But it fired up a lot of Hoosiers, many of whom commented on the site both pro and con. But in the name of “civility” the Governor deleted a lot of those comments. And it appears most of those were critical of his statement.
Anyone who maintains a Facebook site has the right to control the comments, right? Well, maybe not. If the Governor’s official Facebook page is a public forum, those posters may have First Amendment rights. And the Governor’s action in removing them may be state action targeted to a viewpoint. Think of the Facebook page as a public park, with people holding up pro-Pence and anti-Pence signs. If the Governor told the Indiana police to only clear out the anti-Pence folks, it would be a clear First Amendment problem. This may be the same thing. Only virtual. There’s not been much case law on this because it’s so new. But I suspect we will see litigation in the future, possibly over this very event.
Governor Pence issued a statement on his page on June 28 that said this:
"I believe that civility and respect for the opinion of others is essential to the democratic process. I also believe in the Freedom of Speech.
Over the past 24 hours, I became aware of concerns that comments responding to my statement of support for traditional marriage were being deleted from this Facebook page because they disagreed with my stated position....
Our longstanding policy, on this and other social media sites, has been to delete inflammatory comments that include name-calling, vulgarity or comments personally insulting to others. It was my understanding that the comments which were deleted all met this standard.
On careful review, it appear that this was not always the case and 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.
I have instructed our staff to review our policy and develop a standard of conduct similar to that of other elected officials and news organizations in the days ahead. We will post that policy prominently on this site.
Hoosiers expect our public debate to be open and respectful and we will ever seek to live up to that standard. In agreement or disagreement, I respect the opinions and the freedoms of all the people of Indiana."
Sincerely,Governor Mike Pence
Let’s hope he’s learned his lesson. As Harry Truman said, “if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.” Or off social media, as the case may be.