No, blocking dissent is not transparency

Gov. Matt Bevin
Gov. Matt Bevin Herald-Leader file photo

Gov. Matt Bevin has asserted there is nothing so transparent as him talking to the public via social media like Facebook and Twitter.

Actually, no.

What Bevin is doing is more like speaking into a mirror from which he can choose the image reflected back.

By blocking hundreds from commenting on his social-media posts, he’s controlling not only the message but the response, and there’s nothing transparent about that.

While the governor and his office have not offered any public information about how they choose who will be eliminated from the discussion, there does seem to be a strong correlation between people critical of him and those who are blocked.

That’s the basis of a lawsuit filed against Bevin Monday by the ACLU on behalf of two Kentucky residents who are among those Bevin has blocked on his social media accounts. Essentially, they argue, Bevin is restricting their political speech by kicking them out of a public forum.

And that’s the problem. Our First Amendment protections don’t require officeholders or others to subject themselves to vile and threatening speech. But the free-speech guarantee, at its heart, is about freedom to express contradictory points of view, and to be heard.

Although this area of law is new, like the social media involved, courts have not been friendly to other public officials and institutions who, like Bevin, have tried to control who gets to speak about what.

In 2014, a federal judge ordered the City and County of Honolulu to pay attorneys fees for people who sued because their Facebook posts critical of the police department had been deleted. Last month, a Virginia federal judge wrote that the chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors “committed a cardinal sin under the First Amendment,” by blocking a critical commenter from her official Facebook account.

What Bevin is doing is not unique or original. President Donald Trump, for one, has also blocked Twitter followers, a move that has also drawn a legal challenge.

But it is disturbing. Politicians and officeholders have increasingly abandoned traditional forms of public exposure, like broadcast debates or true public town halls (rather than staged, invitation-only appearances before supporters), and decline to comment to established media.

As they turn instead to social media to flog their messages, it’s important that people with different experiences and opposing views have the opportunity to be heard.

When those dissenting voices are kicked out of the dialogue, we all suffer.