“A fundamental principle of the First Amendment is that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen, and then, after reflection, speak and listen once more.” – Justice Anthony Kennedy, 2017
In Tammi Fisher’s recent letter about the social media use of local elected officials, she not only ignored the rights of officials to engage in political speech, but appears to advocate for the silencing of the kind of free, unfettered exchange of ideas between these officials and their constituents guaranteed by the First Amendment.
As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, “the First Amendment safeguards an individual’s right to participate in the public debate through political expression and political association.” Such rights are not stripped away simply because a person is elected to a local government body. Indeed, when an elected official uses a media platform to express personal opinions about public affairs, it is not mere self-expression but, rather, the essence of self-government.
Contrary to Ms. Fisher’s contention, if the mayor or a council member disagrees with a political opinion expressed by a council member, whether in traditional or social media, these elected officials are not without recourse. They are free to reflect on the matter and then respond with opinions of their own, either on Facebook or through a myriad of other media platforms like Twitter, the radio, or print media such as the Flathead Beacon.
Neither the Right to Know nor Montana’s open meeting law would apply to such circumstances because no “meeting” occurs when individual council members, along with the public, view an opinion on social media, hear it on the radio, or read it in the newspaper and then respond in serial form. Of course, with all rights come responsibilities. Public officials who choose to engage with citizens on social media must ensure that citizens who wish to express an opposing viewpoint are allowed to do so.
In short, just as a local elected official can use the radio or a newspaper opinion page for the free expression of political ideas about matters of local, public concern, the same holds true for the use of social media. Political speech is entitled to the highest degree of constitutional protection. If this right to free speech is not protected, the real slippery slope to be concerned about is the censorship of elected officials and, by extension, the citizens of Kalispell who elected those officials to be accountable to the voters and engage in independent thought in service of the public good.
Samantha Travis, Michelle Weinberg, Diane Conradi and David K.W. Wilson, Jr. are attorneys who practice law in the Flathead Valley and communities across Montana.
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