By Shaun Szkolnik
For The Tribune
The ACLU of Alabama filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill. The suit alleges that Merrill has violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution by blocking users on Twitter. One of the plaintiffs is Trussville City Schools faculty member Herbert Hicks.
The Alabama ACLU suit alleges that Merrill’s twitter account, for which he uses the twitter handle @JohnHMerrill, is “primarily to post information about his political activity, the policies and procedures of the office of the Alabama Secretary of State, Alabama elections, election rules, election law, and election Contests, all matters within his official capacity as Secretary of State.” They believe that this means that blocking users from access to his @JohnHMerrill personal account amounts to a suppression of “dissent and discussion in this public forum …” The filing also establishes their belief that the blocking is not the result of harassment against Merrill, but rather stems from a desire to avoid public debate and to avoid political speech that he does not agree with.
Merrill claims the account in question – @JohnHMerrill – is exclusively his account.
“The @alasecofstate Twitter account is the state’s public account, and this account has never blocked anyone from viewing any of the posts on its page,” said Merrill. “The @JohnHMerrill account has remained a personal account since its creation, in October 2009.”
Twitter is a social media platform that allows users to micro blog in short statements of 140 characters or less. Users “follow” other users which allows them to keep up with the activities of those they are following. Activities generally include posting original comments, “liking” comments of other users, re-posting comments from other users, and responding to comments.
Because of the potential, the Internet carries for negativity and harassment Twitter allows its users to block other users. Once this option is taken the user that has been blocked cannot view the Twitter activity of the account that has performed the block. To see that activity the blocked party would have to log out of the blocked account, and logging out will not allow for them to engage with the content.
The suit has been filed on behalf of three plaintiffs, one of whom is Trussville educator Herbert Hicks. The filing describes Hicks as active in politics and that “Twitter has provided him an opportunity to expand his political engagement and to keep up to date instantaneously with the world of politics on the local, state, national, and international levels.”
The suit goes on to state, “One of the political leaders Mr. Hicks engaged with, until he was blocked, was Defendant Merrill. Merrill blocked Mr. Hicks around March 6, 2016, after he asked Merrill who extended him an invitation to speak at ceremonies related to the 51st Anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Defendant Merrill’s response as to why he was blocking access to his Twitter account was that it was a personal account and that Mr. Hicks was a troll.”
Another individual that has been blocked by Merrill, but is not listed in the lawsuit, is a candidate for Alabama Secretary of State Heather Milam. In regard to Merrill’s blocking of her, Milam said, “I thought it was unfortunate. I was a little confused as to why because I didn’t realize, at the time, that so many people had been blocked.
Milam also said, “I realize [now] that I was one of many. I just thought it was really unfortunate.”
Milam believes that Merrill’s block of her came in response to one of two instances; either when she reached out to him for clarification on the crossover voting that took place in a 2017 special election or when, as Milam explained, “I think I challenged him on calling the winner of the special election. We would hope that the leader of our election system would be neutral when it came to elections. A secretary of state should not be influencing elections or intimidating voters by saying that one person is going to win over another based on polling.”
Milam summed up her thoughts on the matter by stating, “It is disappointing that we have someone as a public servant who is intentionally and willfully silencing voices of constituents, the people that he works for.”
Milam did, however, find a way of interjecting some levity into the discussion by pointing out that, after announcing her candidacy for Secretary of State she was unblocked by Merrill; but that such a solution would not be available to every person that Merrill had blocked on Twitter.
Secretary of State Merrill responded to the announcement by stating that he is always accessible to the people of Alabama and that he has always made his cell phone number available to all Alabamians.
When The Tribune contacted Merril directly, he answered his phone on the second ring and advised that a press release would be made available. Merrill further informed that he would be completely accessible for any further clarifications or questions.
Merrill texted his statement directly to The Trussville Tribune.
He established his belief that, “The lawsuit filed today by the ACLU of Alabama is an attempted political hack job. Members of this liberal group are attempting to create an issue concerning lack of access to public officials that simply does not exist. As every member of the media and the general public who interacts with this office knows, the most important thing for an elected official to do is to remain accessible to the people of this state. That is why I always make my cell number – 334.328.2787 – available to all Alabamians.”
The statement continues, “However, when people use a platform for public debate as a way to promote their agenda, regardless of the presentation of any factual information, I believe it is my responsibility to designate attempts to misinform the public as false. And, when users continue to publish those instances, or when they make hurtful statements about me or my family, I try to reduce the exposure to avoid misinforming members of the public.
I am recognized as one of the most accessible and personally available elected officials in the history of the state of Alabama, which is why I visit all 67 counties each year. It is my desire to continue to be recognized in that way as long as I have the privilege to continue to serve in public office.”