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A federal judge Friday ruled that State Rep. John Nygren, center, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, right, along with former Rep. Jesse Kremer, violated the First Amendment rights of One Wisconsin Now when the men blocked the group from their Tweets. 

A federal judge ruled last Friday that three Wisconsin state legislators violated the free speech rights of a liberal advocacy group when the lawmakers blocked the group from their respective Twitter feeds.

The decision, written by District Judge William Conley, is the second win for One Wisconsin Now, a Madison-based liberal advocacy group, this week. A judge ruled in favor of the group last Thursday when it said the state could not enact new restrictions on early voting.

Scot Ross, the group’s executive director, called the decision a victory for “open, transparent and accountable government.”

“Elected officials can’t exclude people from public forums just because they don’t agree with their political views or don’t want to hear what they may have to say,” Ross said in an email.

One Wisconsin Now sued Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and former Republican Rep. Jesse Kremer of Kewaskum, in November 2017 after the men blocked the group from seeing and responding to their tweets.

Emails to Vos, Kremer and Nygren did not get replies last Friday afternoon. The state Department of Justice was representing the legislators in the case and also did not respond to a request for comment.

Because lawmakers share government news and opinions through their Twitter accounts, One Wisconsin Now contended that the social media platform constituted a public forum, arguing that they were being blocked because of their viewpoint.

Conley wrote that the case presented a “novel question of law for this court: is the interactive portion of a government official’s Twitter account a designated public forum?”

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Ultimately, Conley determined that it is and said that the lawmakers’ actions violated One Wisconsin Now’s First Amendment rights.

“While there is no settled law on whether a government actor’s social media account is a designated public forum, two federal district courts have now held that government officials’ social media accounts can constitute public forums,” Conley wrote, adding that the lawmakers presented no reason for blocking One Wisconsin Now, “except by vague innuendo or by claiming that they must have had a valid reason but can no longer remember why they did so.”

Conley stopped short of requiring Vos, Kremer and Nygren to reinstate One Wisconsin Now as a follower of their Twitter feeds, but directed the parties to submit briefs about how to deal with the issue by Feb. 8.

Conley’s ruling follows a decision from a federal judge in New York, who in May said President Donald Trump is not permitted under the U.S. Constitution to block people from his Twitter feed. In that case, U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald determined that Trump’s Twitter account is considered a “public forum” under the Constitution because it is an interactive space where Twitter users can dialogue directly with him and other users. She also found that by blocking people from it, Trump was discriminating against them based on their viewpoint. 

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.