Oct. 22–Thornton Mayor Pro Tem Jan Kulmann agreed to unblock two anti-fracking activists from her official Facebook page as part of an agreement announced Monday in a lawsuit accusing the elected official — a proponent of oil and gas interests — of violating free speech rights by censoring her government social media page.
The stipulation, which was approved by a federal magistrate, also said Kulmann will not block anyone or delete any further comments from her official Facebook page while the lawsuit proceeds.
The agreement came after Boulder County commissioner candidate Cliff Willmeng, co-founder of the anti-fracking group East Boulder County United, and Marine Corps reservist Eddie Asher filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver alleging that Kulmann deleted their posts on the mayor pro tem’s official Facebook page.
“The order will remain in effect through Election Day and allow Mr. Willmeng and Mr. Asher, and everyone else, to fully exercise their First Amendment rights,” Andrew McNulty, the attorney representing Willmeng and Asher, said in a statement.
Stan Garnett, Kulmann’s attorney, called the lawsuit a “complete publicity stunt.”
“It’s brought by someone who’s a candidate for county commissioner and both are very active in the anti-Proposition 112 campaign,” Garnett said. “They filed a 58-page federal court complaint in request for an injunction without even extending the courtesy to Jan and asking her to unblock them, which she had every right to do.”
The lawsuit said Kulmann maintains an official Facebook page as mayor pro tem that supports fracking and has repeatedly deleted Willmeng’s and Asher’s anti-fracking posts and has blocked them.
The lawsuit also noted that Kulmann, who opposes Colorado Proposition 112, the “Safer Setbacks Initiative,” is a salaried employee of petroleum and natural gas company Noble Energy.
“Mayor Pro Tem Kulmann has a direct economic stake in Proposition 112 failing,” the lawsuit said. “Jan Kulmann’s censorship of dissenting views and cultivation of a false impression that Proposition 112 is universally opposed is a familiar propaganda playbook employed by authoritarian leaders across the globe.”
Garnett, a former Boulder County district attorney, said people don’t appreciate what public servants have to put up with online.
“I completely understand the decisions Jan made,” Garnett said. “My issue is not whether what she did was fine or not fine. The issue is what’s legal, and when it’s a campaign website, one is allowed a fair amount of discretion about what one permits. Elected officials have to make reasonable decisions about what’s going to go on their campaign pages, and Jan’s decision was totally appropriate. And if there was a problem, a phone call would have solved it.”
To avoid a hearing, Garnett and the plaintiffs agreed to the stipulation.
In other examples of social media and the First Amendment colliding, a federal judge in Manhattan declared President Donald Trump’s practice of blocking Twitter users who criticized him and his administration unconstitutional earlier in the year, according to the New York Times.
Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald said that because the president’s Twitter feed is a public forum, he violated the First Amendment when he or an aide blocked seven plaintiffs from viewing and responding to his tweets.
Buchwald did not issue an order that the president must stop blocking citizens, instead reiterating what the Constitution upholds and expecting the president to follow through. The White House unblocked the seven Twitter users accounts while also appealing Buchwald’s ruling.
Updated Oct. 22, 2018 at 5:30 p.m. This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the court order in this case. Though approved by a federal magistrate, the decision to unblock Facebook users was an agreement stipulated by all parties in the lawsuit.
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