Facing lawsuits, Alaska lawmakers consider new social media policy

The Alaska State Capitol on April 22, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney)

With two of its members facing lawsuits for their social media practices, the Alaska Legislature is contemplating new advice and policies to cover its 60 members.

On Thursday, the joint House-Senate Legislative Council unveiled its first draft of a new policy, but individual lawmakers voiced objections to the proposal, and further revisions are expected before a final policy is settled. 

As explained by legislative staff, the draft policy is an “everything or nothing” approach that advises lawmakers to not discuss legislative issues or business on their personal social media accounts.

If a lawmaker runs an official legislative account on social media, the policy recommends that the lawmaker either prohibit all public comments or allow all comments, regardless of their content.

“Regardless of whether what’s being written or commented is hateful, defamatory … the recommendation is you don’t delete, you don’t block, you don’t hide. Everything goes or nothing goes is the safest way to avoid risk of litigation,” said Jessica Geary, director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, which provides administration support to lawmakers.

“I can’t support this as written,” said Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer.

Hughes was among the lawmakers who said the policy as currently written could create a platform for negative acts.

“I don’t want an X-rated Facebook page and I don’t want to enable criminal action,” she said.

Thursday’s discussion came in response to a series of legal disputes between legislators and people blocked from their social media pages:

  • In 2021, Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, was sued by a Chugiak resident who alleges that Reinbold violated her free-speech rights when she was blocked from Reinbold’s Facebook page. That case is now in the hands of an Anchorage Superior Court judge, who has yet to issue a ruling.
  • Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, was sued in June by Mark Kelsey, the former publisher of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman newspaper, on similar grounds.
  • Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, was sued in 2021 by a constituent who was blocked from his account on Twitter. She dropped the case after he lifted the block.

In general, legislators have said that they need to be able to block abusive commenters who discourage others from participating online.

“We don’t want to create a loophole for hate, bullying or slander,” Reinbold said during Thursday’s meeting.

Courts in various jurisdictions have ruled in different ways, with some saying that blocking constituents amounts to government restrictions on free speech. Alaska has no case law on the issue. The suit involving Reinbold is the first of its kind.

The Legislature’s existing social media policy hasn’t been updated since 2011, and Geary said the draft came about after lawmakers consulted with national organizations including the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

She said the draft is modeled after a similar document in Colorado.

In response to criticism, Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau and the chair of the Legislative Council, said that Thursday’s document is only a draft and may change significantly before final adoption.

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