Call for Action: Social media accounts blocked by city departments

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - Several city of Colorado Springs social media accounts were blocking dozens of users. After answering questions from 11 News, they decided to unblock a majority of Facebook and Twitter accounts listed.

Background photo: MGN

The Colorado Springs Police Department didn’t allow 72 users to see their content. The city’s fire department had 57 accounts blocked between the two platforms. Colorado Springs City Council was blocking nine accounts, including a media outlet.

These lists of blocked accounts could have potential legal problems concerning free speech.

“Public officials have to be very careful not to exclude based on content or viewpoint, at least if it’s the government’s website or a feed that is used to send out government information,” said University of Colorado law professor Scott Moss.

Many municipalities have social media policies in place that allow officials to block users for various reasons, but the city of Colorado Springs’ social media policy does not mention reasons to block people. The policy on the city’s website only mentions deleting comments on posts by a department if someone is harassing, using profanity or using obscenities. (Click here and then click the "disclaimer" tab to read the policy.)

Local governments are allowed to block users as long as their policy reasons are content-neutral so that it doesn’t violate the First Amendment, Moss said.

"You don’t really need new law,” Moss explained. “What you need though is awareness on the part of government officials that ‘hey, there’s new stuff.’ This speech just like the old stuff that we couldn’t restrict."

When 11 News reached out to the city for more specific information on why certain organizations and people were blocked, an internal meeting was held between some city officials. Some of the accounts blocked were corporations and journalism publications.

Some of the businesses were blocked because they were pushing commercial content, according to Colorado Springs Police Department public information officer Lt. Howard Black. Other businesses were blocked because they were at one point hacked and pushing concerning content.

One of the accounts that was blocked by city council, @COSCityCouncil on Twitter, was a journalism publication called Colorado Watchdog, @WatchdogCO.

Their parent organization sent us this statement when we told them @WatchdogCO was blocked.

"It doesn't matter if they're blocking a Twitter account, a website or any other medium. It's fundamentally and morally wrong,” said Chris Krug, president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and publisher of Watchdog.org.

Julie Smith, the lead digital communications specialist for Colorado Springs, said the closed-door meeting was held to renew conversations about its social media policies and to start reviewing the accounts on block lists.

“They were blocked, some from 2011, so we can't necessarily answer off the top of our head why they were blocked,” Smith said. “If someone was blocked, they're free to contact the city, and we can look into that.”

Since 11 News started asking questions, the number of social media accounts blocked by the police department dropped from 72 to eight accounts. All accounts that were on the block list for city council and the fire department are no longer blocked.

Many city officials who now run Colorado Springs social media accounts did not block a majority of the accounts that were listed. Most of the accounts were blocked before they moved into their current public information roles.

“You can have a policy to exclude those who go too far,” Moss said. “But too far has to be pretty bad to get you excluded. Close to what would get you kicked out of protesting on the city hall steps, and it better be neutral.”

If you have been blocked by a government organization or official, please contact news@kktv.com and put in the subject line “Blocked on Social Media.”