PHILADELPHIA – At the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, U.S. Representative Ryan Costello of Chester County has agreed to unblock constituents from his official Facebook page, the civil liberties group announced in a statement today.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania sent Costello a letter in March on behalf of nine constituents threatening potential legal action over the congressman’s frequent blocking of his critics on his official Facebook page and viewpoint-based exclusion of constituents from his town hall meetings, which the ACLU explained undermined the constituents’ First Amendment free speech rights. The constituents who were blocked by Costello had expressed their opinions to him on a wide range of issues, including net neutrality, the environment, his support of President Trump, and his unwillingness to condemn racist, alt-right rhetoric.
“Democracy is noisy, and the right to free speech ensures that government officials hear what the people have to say,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Our system of governance can’t work properly if elected officials cut off their constituents’ access in response to criticism.”
In response to the ACLU’s letter, the congressman’s staff also confirmed that they had blacklisted two of the constituents named in the letter from attending a January 2018 town hall meeting based on statements made by the constituents that the congressman’s staff considered “threats.” In follow-up discussions with Costello’s staff, the ACLU noted that the congressman’s staff had failed to identify any legitimate basis for deeming any of the named constituents security threats and reminded Costello in a subsequent letter that prohibiting their attendance at future events based on their views will lead to a lawsuit.
“Our constitutional rights can only be protected when people are willing to stand up and say, ‘This is not right,’” said Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We are grateful that our clients were willing to speak out publicly—not only to defend their own rights, but to raise awareness about this problem and preserve everyone’s right to contact their representatives without fear of retaliation.”
“We are continuing to investigate complaints about Congressman Costello and other elected officials attempting to silence their critics by cutting off various forms of access,” said Michelin Cahill, intake attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We want people to contact us if they have been blocked by government officials on social media or excluded from public events after speaking their minds.”
The previously censored Costello constituents are represented by Tack-Hooper, Witold J. Walczak, and Michelin Cahill of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Seth F. Kreimer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The original demand letter sent to Costello is available at aclupa.org/Costello. Complaints can be filed at aclupa.org/intake.