ACLU of Alabama sues Sec. of State John Merrill for blocking constituents on personal Twitter

John Merrill_twitter
[Photo Credit: Alabama Today]
President Donald Trump made headlines last summer for blocking American on Twitter for the political views they have expressed, which ultimately resulted in a successful plaintiff’s lawsuit on grounds that the action was unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment. Now a similar case has made its way to the Yellowhammer State.
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Alabama citizens challenging Secretary of State John Merrill for blocking them on his @JohnHMerrill Twitter account, claiming as an elected government official, his actions violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The plaintiffs in the suit are:

  1. Kimberly Fasking: a law student at the University of Alabama, was blocked after asking about crossover voting.
  2. Heather Melvin Boothe: was blocked for stating “Good point! Ballot has major typo.”
  3. Herbert Hicks: a farmer and educator, who was blocked after asking Merrill about a speaking engagement.

“It is upsetting to me that the Secretary of State, who primarily uses his Twitter account to disseminate information on issues related to his office, has also weaponized that account by blocking those with whom he disagrees politically,” said Fasking. “It is not the Secretary of State’s job to communicate only with those who agree with him, but with all of the people of the State of Alabama. I am disappointed that I no longer have ready access to information from the Secretary of State’s office in a way that allows me to engage meaningfully on topics that I find incredibly important.”

Not his official account

But Merrill’s office explained to Alabama Today that the @JohnHMerrill account is in fact not the Secretary’s official Twitter account. Rather, it’s his personal account that he maintains from personal devices. While Merrill does use the account to discuss state business, such as election law, information about his duties as Alabama Secretary of State, reminders to the public about upcoming elections, he maintains the @alasecofstate account for actual, official business. John Bennett, Deputy Chief of Staff and Press Secretary for Merrill confirmed the official account has never blocked any constituents. He further shared an example of why some people were blocked on Merrill’s personal account, saying that when he shared that his father died they celebrated the news. 

Merrill himself weighed-in on the lawsuit Wednesday afternoon calling it a “political hack-job.”

“The lawsuit filed today by the ACLU of Alabama is an attempted political hack-job,” Merrill posted on Facebook. “Members of this liberal group are attempting to create an issue concerning lack of access to public officials that simply does not exist. As every member of the media and general public who interacts with this office knows, the most important thing for an elected official to do is to remain accessible to the people of this state. That is why I always make my cell number 334.328.2787 available to all Alabamians.”

He also confirmed the account noted in the suit is his personal Twitter account.

“The account in question @JohnHMerrill is exclusively my account, while the account @alasecofstate is the state’s public account, and this account has never blocked anyone from viewing any of the posts on its page. The @JohnHMerrill account has remained a personal account since its creation, in October 2009,” Merrill added. “I am recognized as one of the most accessible and personally available elected officials in the history of the state of Alabama, which is why I visit all 67 counties each year. It is my desire to continue to be recognized in that way as long as I have the privilege to continue to serve in public office.”

Nevertheless the ACLU contends constituents should have access to that personal account because Merrill holds a state office.

“In the digital age that we live in, John Merrill as a government official does not get to pick and choose who receives information on Twitter just like he can’t kick out his constituents for their beliefs at a town hall,” stated ACLU of Alabama attorney Brock Boone. “This is a violation of the First Amendment. It is worrisome that the individual in charge of free and fair elections chooses to discriminate against individuals on social media. As the Secretary of State, Merrill should be using his platform to inform the public, not censure them.

The lawsuit seeks to stop Merrill from blocking plaintiffs or others based upon whether he agrees or disagrees with their viewpoint. The case, Fasking v. Merrill, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on September 19, 2018.

*4:35 p.m. CT: This story has been updated with Merrill’s statement.