A Waconia man has settled a suit with the city of Chaska for blocking his access to the city’s public social media accounts.
Noah McCourt received a $1,005 settlement, and the city was ordered to unblock his access, revise its social media policies and train its staffers on First Amendment applications to social media accounts.
McCourt also will have his legal fees reimbursed. He is policy director of the Minnesota Autism Council and a member of the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities.
McCourt was blocked from the Chaska Police Department’s Twitter account for comments he posted about the department and from posting comments on the police Facebook page. Police Chief Scott Knight and Lt. Chris George were defendants in the suit.
McCourt said he criticized the Chaska police for “unnecessary roughness and aggression” when dealing with people with disabilities. He said he had also posted that Knight had “a very large ego.”
The city and McCourt agreed on an offer of judgment, under which the city agreed to the payment and policy changes in order to avoid lengthy litigation, said Hannah Felix, a lawyer with the League of Minnesota Cities who represented Chaska.
“For me it was never really about the money,” McCourt said. “It’s more like people just deserve to be treated equitably.”
“There’ll still be a policy in place, and you’re going to have to abide by these guidelines in order to participate,” he said.
It was the second time this year that a city in Carver County has been involved in questions about the legality of government use of social media. The previous controversy concerned a Facebook page maintained by Victoria Mayor Tom Funk.
President Donald Trump has been involved in a similar case for blocking users from his personal Twitter account.
More such cases are likely to arise as governments navigate the intersection of speech and freedom of information laws and social media, said Don Gemberling, spokesman for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.
A private entity, including Twitter and Facebook, can delete content or block users for any reason. But government is required by the First Amendment to permit most speech.
“The government can’t restrict what we want to say, within certain limits. If the guy was posting something that says, ‘I’m going to blow up City Hall,’ that’s tantamount to shouting fire in a crowded theater,” Gemberling said, referring to a 1919 Supreme Court decision that permitted the banning of speech that is dangerous and false.
“But if the guy said, ‘I think the mayor is a scum-sucking pig,’ the First Amendment allows that,” Gemberling said.