MADISON, Wis. — A liberal advocacy group filed a federal lawsuit against three top Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, alleging they are infringing on the group's free speech rights by blocking it from commenting on their Twitter feeds.
One Wisconsin Now filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal court in Madison. It names Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and state Reps. John Nygren and Jesse Kremer as defendants. Nygren is co-chair of the Legislature's powerful budget-writing committee and Kremer is one of the most conservative members of the Assembly, sponsoring a bill this year that allows for University of Wisconsin students to be expelled for disrupting campus events.
One Wisconsin Now alleges that the lawmakers are increasingly using their official Twitter accounts to communicate with the public. It says that all three lawmakers have blocked the group, which it believes is an unconstitutional free-speech violation.
"This is a groundbreaking case that we expect will result in ensuring that everyone will have the right to respond to public officials on social media sites, like Twitter, just as they would if they were attending a town hall meeting," the group's attorney, Christa Westerberg, said in a statement.
The lawsuit mirrors one filed in July against President Donald Trump by First Amendment advocates who said it was unconstitutional for the president to block his critics from following him. The lawsuit was filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and cited seven individuals blocked by Trump or his aides after criticizing the president.
One of the Wisconsin lawmakers, Kremer, didn't immediately reply to a request for comment made through his legislative office. He reacted on Twitter instead, posting an identical message on his personal and official accounts: "Maybe they should put out useful tweets so they weren't treated as email spammers on a forum for my constituents."
He also tweeted two other messages on his official account, the same one where One Wisconsin Now was blocked: "Don't want to be considered useless spam? Then don't spam." And: "Interestingly, I am probably one of the most accessible statesman (sic) in WI & carry on opposing viewpoint discussions regularly on social media."
Vos's spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment. Nygren said in a text message that he first had to speak with his attorney. Wisconsin Department of Justice spokesman Johnny Koremenos said the attorney general's office had not yet received a request to represent the lawmakers.
A blocked user on Twitter is unable to follow, see Twitter messages or reply to the user who blocked them. The blocked person also can't see who is following the user who blocked them or search their tweets. Also, the user who blocks them will not be notified if the blocked person mentions them in a tweet.
"It is unacceptable state representatives like Kremer, Nygren and Vos use forums like Twitter to broadcast their propaganda in their official capacity, on the public's dime and then block the public from challenging or responding to them," said One Wisconsin Now's director, Scot Ross. "Free speech isn't just for the people or organizations whom they like or with whom they agree."
The group's lawsuit claims that government officials can't offer a public forum through Twitter and then block people or groups, including One Wisconsin Now, from participating. It is asking the court to declare the actions are a violation of First Amendment free speech rights and issue an order unblocking One Wisconsin Now and prohibiting the lawmakers from blocking any other users.
One Wisconsin Now is one of the most outspoken liberal groups in the state, frequently targeting Republican office holders for criticism both through social media, press releases and sometimes lawsuits. A federal judge last year sided with the group in its lawsuit challenging Republican-authored restrictions on early voting and limitations on where it can take place. That ruling is currently under appeal.