The father of our country knew something about bad press.
Americans loved George Washington, but it didn’t take long for newspapers to start slamming him on everything from domestic policy to his political principles.
He chafed at the criticism, sure. But he did not silence his critics.
Because back in 1783, Washington said “the freedom of Speech may be taken away — and, dumb & silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.”
That brings me to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who needs to work on being more like George Washington.
Hogan’s staff has blocked and deleted at least 450 people who voiced their opinions on his official Facebook page. And the ACLU sued him for that last week.
The governor’s staff dismissed the lawsuit as frivolous and the online commentary was rich with a “who cares?” backlash.
But it matters. And it especially matters when it’s a guy like Hogan, a Republican governor in an overwhelmingly Democratic state who is astonishingly popular, with the second-highest approval ratings of America’s 50 governors.
Hogan is not a reactionary hothead. He has shown a steady hand in leading his state and a stern adherence to principles.
So blocking citizens who come to that governor’s page — which is a public forum, labeled as official and administered by staff earning public tax dollars — is unnecessary and ultimately dangerous.
“The governor’s office has a very clear social media policy, and we will continue to remove all hateful and violent content and coordinated spam attacks to foster an open and constructive dialogue,” said spokeswoman Amelia Chasse.
But it’s too easy to use the image of trolls or spammers or hateful folks lashing out online.
What the governor’s staff called a “concentrated spam attack” others would probably call “advocacy.”
The Facebook era makes it easy to tailor a message by simply blocking a critic or deleting a negative comment. It’s a lot cleaner than the old days, when doing the same would have required sending staff out to collect and burn newspapers with critical editorials or arresting and silencing protesters.
But that’s exactly what’s happening, only digitally. Hogan isn’t the first public official to be criticized for defanging Facebook and other social media. President Donald Trump is being sued by Twitter users who were blocked from his Twitter feed.
One of the first landmark rulings on this whole issue came down recently in Virginia. The chairman of the Loudon Country Board of Supervisors violated the First Amendment, according to U.S. District Court Judge James Cacheris in Alexandria, when she banned a constituent from her Facebook page. And in Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin also got a visit from the ACLU over his use of Facebook and Twitter.
In George Washington’s time, the era of affordable postage had an impact much like the internet. The number of newspapers quadrupled between 1776 and 1800, and anonymous posters hammered his leadership. And even back then, Washington had anonymous trolls.
Authors using the pseudonyms “Juricola,” “Valerius,” “Belisarius” and “Portius” all wrote public letters trashing Washington’s decisions. But he did not silence them.
Freedom of speech, dissent and discourse lie at the very foundation of our nation. And true leadership means accepting that.