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The superintendent of schools in Bangor blocked a Bangor Daily News journalist on Twitter after the BDN reported that Bangor High School had announced a student’s suicide over the school’s loudspeaker.
Though temporary, Superintendent Betsy Webb’s move to block Eesha Pendharkar on Twitter was a violation of the First Amendment, according to a lawyer who specializes in freedom of information laws. During the time she was blocked, Pendharkar, who covers education for the BDN and wrote two articles late last week on the school’s response to the student’s suicide, could not see the superintendent’s posts on the social media platform.
“A government official cannot selectively block the news media from their Twitter account where they’re using the Twitter account to make official announcements and conduct public business,” said Sigmund Schutz, a Portland-based lawyer.
Webb unblocked Pendharkar on Wednesday after John Hiatt, a Bangor School Committee member, told Webb he was aware she had blocked the reporter.
Webb uses the Twitter account to post some official school announcements, such as the cancellation of school on Tuesday due to snow, and a number of education-related messages. The Twitter page identifies Webb in her official capacity, as “Superintendent of Schools.”
A federal judge in New York last year ruled that President Donald Trump’s practice of blocking critics from viewing and engaging with his Twitter account was unconstitutional. The judge, Naomi Reice Buchwald, found Trump’s Twitter account to be a public forum. As a result, she found, blocking critics on Twitter was a violation of the First Amendment.
In Maine, the American Civil Liberties Union’s state chapter sued then-Gov. Paul LePage in August 2017 after administrators of his Facebook page blocked leaders of a progressive group from accessing and posting on the page. The organization later reached a settlement with LePage under which the plaintiffs in that lawsuit had their access to the page restored and the page’s administrators were barred from blocking other users. The page no longer exists.
The first article by Pendharkar, published Nov. 29, quoted public officials in Bangor, a parent, a student and a school committee member — Hiatt — who criticized the high school’s choice to announce the student’s suicide to 1,200 students over the school’s loudspeaker. The article also quoted mental health experts who criticized the use of the loudspeaker and quoted from a nationally recognized tool kit for schools on responding to a student’s suicide that expressly advises against loudspeaker announcements.
The second article, published Nov. 30, profiled Bangor City Council Chair Clare Davitt, who revealed publicly that she had twice attempted suicide and last year sought treatment at Northern Light Acadia Hospital because she was again experiencing suicidal thoughts.
That article grew out of a public Twitter exchange between Davitt and Webb, in which Davitt called the loudspeaker announcement “horrifying and incredibly inappropriate” and she sent Webb a link to the nationally recognized suicide response toolkit.
Pendharkar linked to the exchange in her articles. During the time Webb blocked her on Twitter, Pendharkar was unable to see the exchange and Webb’s other tweets.
Webb did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
She and Bangor High School Principal Paul Butler declined multiple requests for comment before the BDN published the articles late last week. Webb, however, sent Pendharkar a transcript of Butler’s intercom announcement and other information about the school’s response that the school had distributed to parents.
Webb sent an email to Bangor High School staff members Monday, writing that the articles “do not portray Bangor High or us well” and that “expert guidance was reviewed and very much the basis of the protocol used” to announce and respond to the student’s suicide.
BDN writer Eesha Pendharkar contributed reporting but was not involved in writing this article.