Sue Gibson wanted to make a point.
That’s why she tagged a handful of her elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and newly sworn-in Gov. Mike Parson, when she tweeted out a U.S. map showing state by state the value of exports subject to Canadian tariffs.
She realized she wasn’t quite sure whether Parson’s Twitter handle had changed since he became governor. So she went to his profile to check — and discovered she'd been blocked.
“What!” Gibson remembers thinking. “Right off the bat, within the first three days of taking office, you make it a priority to block a citizen? That's ridiculous.”
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After being contacted by The Star, Gibson learned that not only had she been recently blocked by Parson’s "personal" Twitter account, she also had been blocked weeks earlier by the official account set up for the lieutenant governor’s office.
Gibson, 62, a liberal activist and retired nurse who lives in Jefferson City, said social media is a way for her to reach out to her elected officials to try to create change. Being blocked, she said, cuts off a line of communication.
“I'm a taxpayer and they need to listen to me whether they like it or not,” she said. “It's a public forum and it should be open to everyone who resides in Missouri, in my opinion.”
In an increasingly digital age, many elected officials have come to rely on social media to reach their constituents. But the ways in which they do so are often still in a legal gray area.
While there is no case law in Missouri, a federal judge ruled in May that President Donald Trump can’t block users from his “@realDonaldTrump” Twitter account and must unblock the plaintiffs in the lawsuit who had been blocked. The judge said the account, which the president has argued is his personal one, constitutes a public forum.
The U.S. Department of Justice promised to appeal the ruling.
In Virginia, a federal court ruled that when an elected official blocked a constituent, the constituent's First Amendment rights were violated. Similar lawsuits have been filed in recent years in various states, including Kentucky and Maryland.
“Official social media pages, maintained by government employees, are a public forum,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Blocking or banning constituents because of their viewpoint would violate the First Amendment.”
Parson seems to have come around to that line of thinking.
Among Missouri's statewide elected officials, only Parson and the man he took over for as governor, Eric Greitens, regularly blocked accounts on social media.
But in the time since Parson became governor on June 1, his staff has created new official accounts that they insist will no longer block anyone.
His personal and campaign accounts, on both Twitter and Facebook, will abide by whatever policy is eventually established by the taxpayer-funded office and will unblock anyone who was previously blocked.
"We are working to restore and build trust in the governor’s office. We're opening the doors of the office and ensuring every Missourian has the opportunity to share their opinions freely," Steele Shippy, communications director for the governor's office, said in a statement to The Star.
Gibson confirmed that she’d been unblocked from the @MikeParson Twitter account. However, she remained blocked by the @MoLtGov account as of Monday.
And by Monday evening, the lieutenant governor’s office accounts on Facebook and Twitter had been deactivated.
Campaign vs. official
While he was lieutenant governor, Parson’s office often used taxpayer-funded staff to post information on his personal and campaign social media accounts.
The intended goal of having state employees post information to both “official” and “personal” accounts was to reach as many constituents as possible, Kelli Jones, a spokeswoman for Parson who worked in the lieutenant governor’s office and now is press secretary for the governor’s office, said in an email to The Star last month.
“In the past, official staff has at times posted a limited amount of information about official acts on the ‘Team Mike Parson’ Facebook page,” Jones said, “but they were not intended as campaign posts. Rather, the intent was to ensure transparency with the citizens of the state by speaking to the Team’s larger audience.”
At times, Parson even did so himself.
“Often, the lieutenant governor himself posts items like photos on both his personal and official accounts because his personal page has a larger audience,” Jones said, “and his goal is to share updates with citizens.”
After The Star’s records request, Jones said the lieutenant governor’s office changed its policy to “confine initial posts about official actions to the official social media pages. At a later time, after a post has entered the public domain, staff and family members of the lieutenant governor may share updates on their personal pages.”
Now that he’s governor, Parson’s official staff will no longer be given access to his personal or campaign accounts.
And the governor’s office will not block anyone from seeing or interacting with its posts on social media.
In response to an open records request from The Star in May, the lieutenant governor’s office revealed that across its “official” Facebook and Twitter accounts, at least 29 users were blocked.
An additional 18 accounts were blocked from Parson’s “personal” Twitter account.
Among those whom Parson blocked was state Rep. Paul Curtman, a Franklin County Republican who is running in the GOP primary for state auditor.
Curtman said Monday that he wasn’t aware he was ever blocked by Parson and had no idea why he would have been.
He said he's had no indication that any bad blood ever existed with the governor. He's spoken to Parson numerous times on the campaign trail over the last year, he noted, including last weekend at the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association’s annual steak fry.
Also blocked by Parson was Aaron Baker, a lobbyist who is employed by the consulting firm of veteran Republican operative Jeff Roe.
Facing impeachment, Greitens hired Roe to lead an aggressive public relations campaign. Baker, one of Roe's top lieutenants, was registered to lobby in the Capitol for the embattled governor.
Baker said Monday that he no longer appears to be blocked by Parson, then joked, “I post a lot of stuff about 4-H. He may be more of an FFA guy?”
Parson's spokesman didn't address why Curtman and Baker were blocked.
Questions about use of social media by elected officials in Missouri hit a fever pitch during Greitens’ stormy 17 months in office.
Greitens regularly held Facebook Live town halls, and he saw Facebook and Twitter as his main vehicle to avoid the media and still get his message out.
Yet the Facebook page where he held these town halls regularly blocked users, preventing them from being able to participate.
And despite the fact that he had only one set of social media accounts for the first nine months of his administration, he refused to comply with records requests seeking the number of users he blocked, his history of direct messages and the emails used to create the accounts.
After the media made records requests for his social media accounts in August, the governor’s office created new “official” accounts that it began using sparingly. Greitens continued to hold his Facebook Live town halls on the page where constituents said they had been blocked.
In late April, The Star revealed emails from early in the Greitens administration that show a state employee helping craft a Facebook post for the governor at a time when he had only one Facebook page.
The revelation prompted Attorney General Josh Hawley, who, like Greitens and Parson, is a Republican, to launch an investigation into the governor’s social media use to determine whether he had violated Missouri Sunshine Law.
Hawley’s office said that inquiry is ongoing.
When The Star sent identical records requests to Missouri’s statewide officeholders, only Parson reported blocking anyone on social media or regularly using direct messages to communicate.
But the lieutenant governor was also the only officeholder to willingly turn over records associated with his “personal” or “campaign” accounts.
“We are giving you the personal and campaign account information as a courtesy because transparency is important,” Jones said in an email response to The Star’s records request.
Jones said that while Parson was lieutenant governor, he’d get roughly five or six messages a week through his social media accounts, “mostly from constituents.”
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office said no one has been blocked by his “official” accounts, nor have any direct messages been received or sent.
Treasurer Eric Schmitt’s office said it inherited the current official Facebook and Twitter accounts it uses from the previous administration. There were some blocked users from the previous administration that were unblocked when Schmitt took office.
Hawley’s office provided an email used to create its @AGHawley accounts, noted that no users have been blocked and provided direct messages showing Hawley’s office asking for contact information from a user for help with the office’s human trafficking initiatives.
Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office said no users have been blocked on the official social media accounts and provided a record of direct messages received and sent by the office’s Twitter account. There was no record of direct messages from the office’s Facebook account, because the feature had been turned off.
The ACLU’s Rothert said it’s important now that Parson is governor that he ensure “all Missourians have the ability to interact with the governor in the same way on a public forum."
“If any government official tries to close people out,” he said, “then that gives rise to First Amendment concerns that could give rise to litigation.”