Politics & Government

‘He is a whiny, off-topic social media troll.’ Why Bevin banned critics on social media.

Gov. Matt Bevin has banned almost 3,000 people from his Facebook and Twitter accounts, sometimes reading negative comments online in the middle of the night and directing his communications staff to act against his critics, according to evidence made public this week in a First Amendment lawsuit.

“Please block Robert Robinson from all future FB posts,” Bevin wrote at 11:56 p.m. last June 22 in one text to communications director Elizabeth Kuhn. “He is a whiny, off-topic social media troll and adds no value whatsoever to the dialogue.”

Among the keywords Bevin’s office uses to flag Facebook posts for possible deletion and banning are carpetbagger, dictator, weirdo, crook, jerk, narcissist, nimrod, prude, hypocrite, moron, cheat and thug, according to documents produced by the state. It also flags words associated with women’s reproductive systems, including uterus, cervix, menstruation and womb.

Those banned include acclaimed television writer David Simon, Ky 120 United co-founder Nema Brewer and Cara Stewart, a health law fellow at the Kentucky Equal Justice Center. According to screen shots of their comments recorded by Bevin’s office staff, all have been critical of the governor or his policies at some point since he took office three years ago.

“Well, it was probably for tellin’ him to go straight to hell,” Brewer said on Twitter Wednesday. “I have zero regrets. I’ve said worse, to better.”

At issue is a lawsuit the ACLU of Kentucky filed in 2017 on behalf of Drew Morgan and Mary Hargis, both of whom were banned from Bevin’s accounts. Both were critical of Bevin online, Morgan over the amount of property taxes Bevin paid on his house and Hargis over his “right-to-work” labor policies.

Their suit alleges that Bevin’s policy of banning individuals from state-run social media forums constitutes an unlawful prior restraint on speech. Bevin frequently urges Kentuckians to follow his social media accounts for announcements and public forums.

“The governor has banned almost three thousand individuals from interacting with him in the modern public square — permanently and indefinitely — because of the content and/or viewpoint of their social media posts,” ACLU attorney Corey M. Shapiro wrote in a motion for summary judgment filed Tuesday. “The policy cannot survive strict scrutiny because it serves no compelling interest; is not narrowly tailored; and is nowhere near the least restrictive means to achieve the governor’s stated goal.”

Gov. Matt Bevin, during a Facebook Live question and answer session in August, said, “If you happen to be a teacher who would walk out on your classroom, in order to serve what’s in your own personal best interest at the expense of your children, you probably should retire.”

In their own motion for summary judgment, Bevin’s attorneys said anyone can be reinstated to the governor’s social media accounts if they agree to abide by the governor’s rules: no profanity or abusive language or off-topic posting. Further, Morgan and Hargis have other ways of expressing their opinions, including organizing rallies and writing letters to the editor, Bevin’s lawyers said.

The courts have recognized that public officials have a legitimate right to police their social media accounts, wrote Chad Meredith, one of Bevin’s attorneys.

“Unfortunately, some try to disrupt the flow of information by making obscene or abusive comments to elected officials’ social media posts, or by appending repeated off-topic comments to them,” Meredith wrote. “Such behavior effectively amounts to a heckler’s veto. It adds no value to public discourse and only distracts attention from the messages that officials desire to communicate. Thus, it should be no surprise that Governor Bevin blocks accounts that are used in such disruptive manners.”

The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Gregory F. VanTatenhove in Frankfort.

In the newly released documents, several members of the Bevin administration say 18 different people, including Bevin himself, have had access to his social media accounts since he took office at the end of 2015. Although Bevin sometimes posts directly to Twitter, his communications staff curates his Facebook page for him, the state employees said.

It’s the responsibility of Bevin’s communications staff to monitor comments posted to his Facebook and Twitter pages for posts that need to be deleted and commenters who should be banned, the state employees said.

For example, one day in January 2018, deputy communications director Woody Maglinger sent a text to his colleagues: “Hey gang, negative comments seem to be really picking up on social media this afternoon. All help blocking these jokers (when appropriate) much appreciated.”

However, Bevin himself also keeps an eye on the accounts and sometimes hands down instructions when he believes someone has crossed the line, they said. In March 2018, Bevin wrote to his staff: “Please block this ‘Nanahara’ woman from any further posts on either FB page. There is a limit on idiocy and she has surpassed it.”

The ACLU said it has received almost 1,700 pages of screen shots revealing the comments that led to individuals being banned. Nearly 90 percent of the messages were critical of the governor, roughly 1 percent was supportive of the governor and the rest could not be defined either way, the ACLU said.

One man, under an October 2018 Facebook post in which Bevin asked Kentuckians if he should shave his beard or grow it, wrote, “Grow and hope it covers everything.”

Bevin’s office banned many people after an October 2017 Tweet he posted in response to the mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59 people at a country music concert.

“To all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs …You can’t regulate evil,” Bevin wrote. More than 18,000 people responded to that Tweet. Some used profanity, and the governor’s office clipped those replies and banned the respondents.

“I lived in a country w/ 4 terror attacks in a year. You can’t regulate evil, but you can sure as hell reduce the # of ppl killed by that evil,” replied someone under the name “Navigail.”

Simon, the television writer behind the series The Wire, wrote sarcastically to Bevin, “Repeal those laws on murder, drunk driving and bribery of public officials for starters. F--k it. Law itself can’t work.”

In a Tweet Wednesday about Bevin banning him, Simon wrote, “I’ve been blocked by better.”