Hodge Facebook presence under scrutiny

Chad Frey
Rep. Tim Hodge (D-Newton) maintains a Facebook account he says is a campaign account, and not an official legislative account. Others have called into question the account as Hodge has blocked some social media users from the page.

Rep. Tim Hodge (D-North Newton) maintains two different presences on Facebook — his personal page where he posts family photos and interacts with his friends and a campaign page used to communicate with voters.

Neither, he says, is a page that represents his official office as a state legislator.

“There are no public dollars funding my campaign Facebook page,” Hodge said. “That is your distinction. There are no public employees or dollars to fund my Facebook page.”

He said he believes that to be an important distinction.

The definition of the page — whether it is an official page of a legislator or not — is important as complaints of people being blocked from the page have been leveled. The Kansan has been notified by a city commissioner and other private citizens that they have been blocked from the Facebook page. Other politicians, including U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and President Donald Trump have been sued for blocking users from their social media accounts — and courts have found those blockages to be a violation of the First Amendment when those accounts were defined as official government accounts.

City Commissioner Clint McBroom has posted publicly on his Facebook pages — and penned a more than 700-word letter to the editor of the Newton Kansan — calling attention to Hodge blocking him from the page. He is also discussing the issue with the American Civil Liberties Union. His full letter is published at thekansan.com.

“If you are on your official social media account, you can not block people who simply disagree with you,” said Max Kautsch, Kansas Press Association legal adviser. “You can block under certain circumstances (threat).That is the main thing, to examine the post ... if they made a post that said 'I am going to kill you,' they can block.”

McBroom tells the story of being blocked for asking, what he believes, is a simple question.

On Oct. 5, Hodge made a post that stated “Make no mistake, the billionaires who are funding my opponent,” a dig at Avery Anderson, a Newton Republican who is running against Hodge in the upcoming election.

“The billionaires statement was puzzling to me. Not many of us know of any billionaires in the area,” McBroom said. “ ... I asked the simple question, ‘Who are these billionaire supporters?’ It didn’t take long and my comment was deleted and I was blocked from interacting with this Facebook page. Keep in mind I have never had contact with Tim before.”

The Oct. 5 post has since been removed from the Hodge Facebook page.

According to Kautsch, that exchange would not result in the legal blockage of McBroom from an official account. Key, however, is if that the account is considered an official account.

Hodge’s page — titled as “Representative Tim Hodge” — does not expressly identify it as a campaign page. It has components — like an email address — of a campaign page. Kautsch said that makes it very ambiguous.

"I don't think a longstanding social media page associated with the duties of an elected official is immune from the same rules that apply both to Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when the page in question was not expressly created to promote a specific campaign for office," Kautsch said.

Trump blocked some of his critics on his Twitter handle, @realDonaldTrump, prompting a lawsuit arguing that it violated First Amendment rights. The lawsuit raised questions about the use of social media sites by public officials.

According to firstamendmentwatch.org, a personal website of a public figure is not subject to First Amendment restrictions, and so the site operator can block users. But a site run by the government, or run by a public official for his public business, would likely be categorized as a limited public forum protected by the First Amendment. Officials would violate the First Amendment if they discriminated against users because of their viewpoint.

Hodge maintains that the Facebook page in question is not an official page for him as a legislator but is a privately run campaign page.

“If there were (state funds operating the Hodge Facebook presence) then that would be property of the government, and everyone would have access to it. Given it is my private property ... I am using it to get information to my voters,” Hodge said.

McBroom said he was also blocked from Hodge’s personal Facebook account after asking Hodge the same question about billionaires, and that McBroom refrained from calling Hodge at home out of “respect [for] his time at home.” McBroom claims an email to Hodge’s official legislative email account has been unanswered.

McBroom said Hodge “has failed in his duty to equally represent all citizens”

“In the world of social media, no one has to be forced to be anyone else’s virtual friend, and no one has the right to force their virtual presence on anyone else,” Hodge said.

According to https://www.kslegislature.org, Hodge’s state email address is Tim.Hodge@house.ks.gov, while his office phone is 785-296-2361. Letters can be mailed to Tim Hodge, Room 561-W, Kansas State Capitol Building, 300 S.W. 10th St., Topeka, KS 66612

“I would much rather discuss things in person, put things in context and enjoy a conversation,” Hodge said. “I am done with Facebook fights. If people disagree with me, that is entirely their opinion and this world is way too full with Facebook fights.”