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This article was first published December 19, 2022.
COLUMBUS, Ga. — “Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech.” — Benjamin Franklin, Letter from Silence Dogood No. 8, Printed in The New England Courant, July 9, 1722.
In what has become a pattern of behavior, the Columbus Consolidated Government deleted the Muckraker’s comments on one of its social media pages and then went on to block us from commenting in the future.
Governmental entities are prohibited by federal law from deleting or hiding legitimate comments from their social media pages, as their pages are considered a “designated public forum.” They are also barred from blocking or banning users. The right of the public to comment on governmental pages has most famously been affirmed in the landmark case of Davison v. Randall, as well as in the case of Knight v. Trump.
THE FIRST OFFENSE
Nonetheless, several subordinate branches of the Columbus Consolidated Government have now done exactly that. When social media comments were critical of the Columbus Consolidated Government’s preferred narrative, the governmental pages have simply deleted them.
In early October of 2022, the Columbus Consolidated Government’s Convention & Visitors Board of Commissioners — better known as “VisitColumbusGa” — deleted comments made by the Muckraker on one of their Facebook posts. In response, the Muckraker privately sent out an email blast reminding both their staff and attorneys that VisitColumbusGa is in fact a governmental agency and is thereby prohibited from deleting our comments. The deletion stopped.
THE PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR
Now, in what has become a pattern of behavior, the Columbus Civic Center deleted our comments and went so far as to ban us from commenting on their posts in the future.
We recorded the entire exchange, struck back, and won. Here’s what happened.
On December 13, 2022, at 11:50 a.m. EDT, the Columbus Civic Center made a post on their official government facebook account, which is a dedicated public forum. The post referenced the Civic Center’s recent “partnership” with the Columbus Airport, which resulted in the Civic Center’s rather questionable “VIP Lounge.” The Civic Center’s post read as follows:
“Columbus Airport now has direct flights to Atlanta, Charlotte and Dallas where you can make your connection to anywhere in the world! We value our partnership with Columbus Airport (GA) Visit (link) for more information”
The Muckraker then left our first comment on the Civic Center’s post at 11:51 a.m., just one minute after the post was made. Our comment criticized the Civic Center’s partnership with the Columbus Airport by providing a direct quote from the (now former) Civic Center’s director, Rob Landers, in which he admitted to misleading the public in the partnership’s appearance. We also included a link to an article we recently published on the subject for context, which detailed the poorly-designed “VIP Lounge” recently built at the Civic Center as part of the “partnership.” Our comment read as follows:
“This partnership? ‘We have a way of saying, as they say, you gotta fake it till you make it. So when we put it out from a marketing standpoint, we want it to sound big and very grand and robust, when the reality of it is we’re just changing out the tile and carpeting and adding some seating. But it gives somebody the experience that we’re creating a premium atmosphere.’ — Rob Landers, Director, Columbus Civic Center, August 23, 2022. (Article Link)”
The Columbus Civic Center then deleted the Muckraker’s comment — which ironically consisted of the Civic Center director’s own words — within three minutes of us posting it, as can be seen in a screenshot captured at 11:54 a.m.
After the Civic Center wrongfully deleted our first comment, the Muckraker then left a second comment pointing out the Civic Center’s illegal censorship and cited case law on the subject. We also included a screenshot image of our original comment that the Civic Center had deleted. This second comment was posted just two minutes later at 11:56 p.m. and read as follows:
“As a governmental organization, don’t delete our comments. See: Davison v. Randall (link)”
The Civic Center then deleted the second comment posted by the Muckraker. We then drafted a third comment, though we were now unable to post comments on the Civic Center’s page altogether. The civic center had now deleted two comments and banned us from posting comments at all in the future, as shown in a screenshot captured within the same minute of 11:56 a.m.
An additional screenshot captured two minutes later at 11:58 a.m. shows the absence of a “comment” button, confirming that the Columbus Civic Center had in fact deleted all comments made by the Muckraker and removed our ability to comment on any posts in the future:
Just one minute after removing our ability to comment, the Civic Center then went on to ban us from interacting with their content altogether. A screenshot captured at 11:59 a.m. now showed the absence of both the “like” and “comment” buttons; the Muckraker was now completely prohibited from engaging with any of the Civic Center’s public content.
In a shameful and erroneous attempt to bury the evidence, the Columbus Civic Center then deleted their entire post from their Facebook page.
The Muckraker then immediately drafted and sent an email to the Civic Center informing them of their violation of federal law and demanding that our ability to engage in public discourse be restored immediately. The email was sent to all publicly-listed email addresses found on the Columbus Civic Center's website, including that of Civic Center director Rob Landers, at 12:11 p.m. — just twelve minutes after the Civic Center banned us from interacting with their posts. That email read as follows:
“Dear Civic Center:
As an organization owned and operated by the Columbus Consolidated Government, you are prohibited from restricting the speech of individuals on social media platforms. See: Davison v. Randall, https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca4/17-2002/17-2002-2019-01-07.html
On December 13, 2022, at approximately 12:00 p.m., your organization deleted our comments from your governmentally-controlled social media account. Your organization then went on to restrict us from commenting on any of your posts in the future.
This is prohibited by federal law. We thereby demand that you immediately restore our ability to comment on your governmentally-controlled social media account and refrain from restricting our constitutional right to free speech in the future, as affirmed by federal circuit rulings in the case of Davison v. Randall.
We look forward to your immediate reply containing a confirmation of receipt of this email along with your confirmation of the immediate restoration of our rights under federal law. Should no reply be received by close of business today, we will have no choice but to explore other options.
Nearly seven hours later, the Muckraker received a reply from Civic Center director Rob Landers at 6:53 p.m. The reply lacked any structure, had no greeting, used improper grammar through a casual and unprofessional tone, and provided no apology nor explanation for the Civic Center’s actions. Landers’ first email read as follows:
“You are not prohibited from posting and all posts will be treated like those of any other person posting. Would love to chat more on our programs and partnerships what’s a good time for you.
The Muckraker then checked and found that our ability to comment had been restored. It was at this time that the Civic Center had made a new post to their Facebook page with the same image and copy they had deleted earlier. We then posted new comments with the same content the Civic Center had previously deleted.
The Civic Center left our comments up.
Within seven minutes, the Muckraker replied to Rob Landers’ email at 7:00 p.m. Our email further outlined the Civic Center’s wrongful actions by providing a chronological sequence of events, as well as confirmed that our ability to comment had been restored. Our second email to Landers read as follows:
We are glad to see we are now able to comment on posts made by the Civic Center. However, photographic evidence along with time-stamped digital records plainly show your organization did the following, in chronological order of occurrence:
It appears our ability to comment was restored once our email was sent.
We thank you for your understanding and compliance with the law.
Landers then replied just four minutes later at 7:04 p.m. Landers acknowledged the timeline of events but still offered no explanation nor apology — though he did tell us of how the Civic Center is allegedly “about community engagement including listening to all citizens.” This demonstrates the hollowness of Landers’ words, as his organization just illegally deleted our public comments and banned us from interacting with their page altogether. Landers then went on to laughably ask the Muckraker if we would like to “meet in person,” which is a ridiculously laughable request to make of a muckraking journalist. Landers’ second email read as follows:
“Great, when would you like to meet in person? We are about community engagement including listening to all citizens, their feedback and recommendations. Let me know a good day and time and let’s make it happen.
We then provided one final reply to Landers at 7:07 p.m. in hopes of him better understanding the difference between a public government entity and a private organization; a distinction the Columbus Consolidated Government often struggles to make in the course of its official business. Our final email to Landers read as follows:
Your request is noted and dismissed. We are a private organization.
Your right to speak in a designated public forum is enumerated in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which reads as follows:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Your local government has no right to silence you online — and they most assuredly do not have the right to silence us as the press when we are critical of their actions in a public forum.
Knock it off, CCG. We will not allow it, and neither will federal courts.
You can bet on that.
Residents may voice their concerns of how the Columbus Consolidated Government has repeatedly violated federal law by censoring online speech in a designated public forum by contacting their city council members.
Facts are stubborn things — and we’ll keep publishing them, whether city officials like them or not.
© 2023 Muscogee Muckraker. All rights reserved.
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