6

According to lawyers.com:

“Even if a social media site is maintained as an official government tool, it may not be a public forum for purposes of free speech. For instance, government agencies don’t have to let citizens voice their opinions on official websites that are meant only to pass on information. But the picture changes once public agencies or officials set up sites or accounts that allow people to post comments and voice their opinions freely. Although there may be reasonable restrictions on things like vulgarity or spam, the officials may not delete comments or block users just because they don’t like the opinions being expressed—what’s known as “viewpoint discrimination.”‘

There is a certain Facebook page that is ran by a bureaucracy of the federal government, and I have several screenshots proving they remove, or hide, hundreds of comments on every post.

Can I sue this government agency for removing Facebook comments?

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  • 2
    Are they your comments? If not, then probably not.
    – Ron Trunk
    Jan 13 at 19:55
  • By any chance, would these comments be advocating an activity that is illegal under federal law? Jan 13 at 20:01
  • 2
    If they're literally hiding everyone's comments, then the case is probably weaker. Where the government runs into trouble is when it creates a "public forum" and then blocks certain people (but not others) from expressing their viewpoints. A blanket hiding of all comments is viewpoint-neutral, at least. Jan 13 at 20:07
  • 14
    Are you sure that the Government is hiding the comments, and not Facebook themselves (e.g., for terms of use violations)?
    – Ron Trunk
    Jan 13 at 20:14
  • 2
    @Cannabijoy Can you explain more what you mean by "hidden?" Are you referring to them only showing up if you select "all comments" rather than the default "Top Comments" view? If that's what you mean, that's controlled 100% by Facebook, not the page in question.
    – reirab
    Jan 14 at 15:36
8

As I understand it, you can pretty much sue anybody for anything. The question, of course, is would you win the suit?

All the lawyers here can correct me, but I believe in order to win, you would have to

  1. Show standing, that is, they're your comments and not someone else's
  2. Show that it's a deliberate act, and not just someone accidentally clicked the wrong checkbox.
  3. Show that it was an act by the agency and not by Facebook, for example.
  4. Show that you've been singled out for your viewpoint (they allow some people's comments)
  5. Show that there is no other reason to delete your comments (they're obscene, or advocate for an illegal act, for example).

I'm probably missing something else.

The real question is, even if you could demonstrate all these things, would it be worth it? You may spend $1,000's and you might not recover your legal fees. The case might take years.

5
  • Thanks for the answer! I will ask around and see if any civil rights/libertarian lawyers are interested.
    – Cannabijoy
    Jan 13 at 23:39
  • 2
    You are missing one thing. You have to show that you have some kind of damages. How were you financially harmed by the removal of the comments?
    – JohnFx
    Jan 14 at 0:18
  • 9
    @JohnFx My impression is that the infringement of your right to free speech is automatically a harm, and a fairly severe one that the government would be hard-pressed to justify. (Again, assuming that everyone Ron mentions has been established, so that you have a case that your right to free speech was infringed upon.)
    – KRyan
    Jan 14 at 4:12
  • Is it also required that the suitor be a USA citizen? Jan 14 at 12:36
  • Presumably the ultimate goal is to enjoin the agency from doing it, and get the comments restored (I assume Facebook is able to do this), not necessarily monetary damages.
    – Barmar
    Jan 14 at 15:40
3

In theory, you can. An example is the case of Duhamel & DuBois v. Baldelli-Hunt. You can read the complaint, to see the relevant legal points. In this case, defendant blocked plaintiffs' access to the mayor's Facebook page, but deleting comments is an equally valid trigger. The relevant consideration is that the official deprived plaintiffs of their right to speak in a public forum as well as their right to petition the government for redress of grievances. It was the government official, not Facebook; it was based on viewpoint, not e.g. obscenity. The web page was used as a public forum (it was not the mayor's private account): comments were enabled.

5
  • Thank you for the answer! So, on the latest post for this Facebook page, comments are enabled. It says there are 16 comments, but none are showing. For everything they have in the past, comments are disabled, even though they were obviously enabled before because the counter shows there are comments. Would removing the ability to comment, after allowing it for some time, and then hiding the comments afterwards, effect this?
    – Cannabijoy
    Jan 13 at 21:01
  • Probably only mildly. For example if it was not intended to be a public forum and someone made a mistake that was corrected, that would defeat the "public forum" claim. If they had a habit of such repeated "errors" (an improbable circumstance), their counter-claim that it is not a public forum would be in jeopardy.
    – user6726
    Jan 13 at 22:02
  • maybe Facebook is a petition for a redress of grievances...
    – Tiger Guy
    Jan 13 at 23:35
  • 3
    @Cannabijoy I strongly suspect that if they have a uniform, decided-ahead-of-time-and-not-because-of-what-was-posted, policy that treats all comments the same (e.g. comments will be open to everyone and publicly-viewable for X days, after which comments will be closed to the public and hidden from view), it would not be considered an issue of free speech.
    – KRyan
    Jan 14 at 4:14
  • 2
    Also, when no comments are showing it might just be Facebook. This happens to me a lot (not with government related pages), because of Facebooks crappy "only show relevant comments" stuff etc.
    – dunni
    Jan 14 at 9:22

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