November 18, 2018
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Federal judge allows free-speech lawsuit against LePage to continue

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Gov. Paul LePage delivers the State of the State address to the Legislature at the State House in Augusta in this Associated Press file photo. A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that a free-speech lawsuit against Gov. Paul LePage for blocking two Maine activists from his Facebook page can move forward, rejecting the governor’s request to throw it out.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that a free-speech lawsuit against Gov. Paul LePage for blocking two Maine activists from his Facebook page can move forward, rejecting the governor’s request to throw it out.

The 41-page ruling from U.S. District Court Justice John Woodcock Jr. is a procedural one that allows the lawsuit to continue. He deemed the Republican governor’s request to dismiss it “premature” because the parties don’t agree on the purpose of LePage’s Facebook page.

The lawsuit, filed in August by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, is part of a national legal movement against social media censorship by public officials. A federal judge in New York ruled in May that it was unconstitutional for President Donald Trump to block people from his personal account. The ACLU settled a similar lawsuit with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

The ACLU of Maine argues that LePage’s page is a “limited public forum” where the governor discusses state issues, making his blocking of two critical commenters — Karin Leuthy of Camden and Kelli Whitlock Burton of Waldoboro, co-founders of Suit Up Maine, a progressive group — a violation of constitutional rights.

The page has often discussed state business, but while it calls itself the governor’s “official” Facebook page, it notes that it isn’t managed by state-paid staffers and started as a fan account. It is now run by LePage strategist Brent Littlefield.

In October, LePage attorney Patrick Strawbridge asked Woodcock to throw out the lawsuit, arguing that ruling in favor of the ACLU “would force elected officials either to broadcast a cacophony of messages with which they disagree, or to change their pages into static sites stripped of the networking features that define social media.”

In a statement, ACLU of Maine attorney Emma Bond said speech “must be protected from government censorship on social media just as is it in any other public forum.” Littlefield declined comment on the lawsuit.

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