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Despite Trump ruling, Hernando commissioner won't unblock Facebook critics: 'Tell them to make me'

Critics of Hernando County Commissioner Steve Champion say he blocked them on Facebook. Despite court rulings that say this could be a First Amendment violation, Champion said he has no plans to change how he uses social media. [ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times (2018)]
Published Jul. 26

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Commissioner Steve Champion posts to Facebook often and with a great many exclamation points.

He posts photos of his family at restaurants and music videos from .38 Special and Tesla. He posts photos of guns, memes about guns and videos of people using guns, sometimes to promote the store he owns, American Gun & Pawn. He posts jokes mocking liberal Democrats and blocks of text exalting President Donald Trump.

And he posts news and musings about county commission issues and other public dealings. It's here, experts and courts say, that the profile of a public official crosses the boundary from the "personal" social media realm into one of the busiest borderlands of free speech in the Facebook age. Here, the dominant question is: Can public officials block their critics?

Some of Champion's critics, many of whom have said they've been blocked from the commissioner's Facebook page, don't believe he should. They've raised those concerns publicly over the past year and in recent interviews.

In late June, Champion, 45, uploaded a photo of a chart of the county's revenues and expenses, from 1994 through a proposed 2020 budget. The commission has been trying to tackle a $10 million budget deficit, and Champion asked for the public's opinion.

"In the coming weeks we will have to make important decisions," he wrote. "Thoughts?"

Champion's page, which identifies him as a commissioner, is public, so anyone on Facebook can comment or react to his posts. The profile, which Champion set up in 2009, has 511 followers, which means his posts appear in their feeds. In the 160 comments, people advocated for low taxes or high taxes, for cutting jobs or not. There was discourse. It was, like many of Champion's posts, a glimpse into what civic engagement looks like in 2019.

That same day, and again two days later, a Facebook user shared Champion's revenues-and-expenses post to a group populated by critics of Champion. Most of the people who commented on the shared post levied a similar complaint: They couldn't see it.

It's a common problem in that group, which is called "I find the actions of Steve Champion to be unethical," and which, upon its creation in July 2018, had a name that got directly at that problem: "I was blocked by Commissioner Steve Champion."

READ MORE: Yes, Hernando County commissioners. You do have a budget problem

"If you want to get in the public arena, hello, you've got to be willing to accept criticism," said Bob Detwiler, a Brooksville resident who moderates the Facebook group. Detwiler said he was blocked by Champion more than two years ago, after he criticized Champion for singling out pitbulls in a discussion about dangerous dogs in the care of county Animal Services.

Champion has repeatedly maintained that he has a right to run his personal account as he wants, even if he sometimes posts about government business. In an interview Wednesday, he said he has blocked people — a couple of dozen, by his estimate — who have commented on his posts with profane language or personal attacks.

"I shouldn't have my family and stuff subjected to crazy people," he said. "I don't care what anybody says."

Champion's posts occasionally draw dissenting comments, though they seem to be outweighed by messages of support. The group for those who oppose Champion has about 50 members, and Detwiler said he knows of more who have been blocked but don't belong to the group.

Courts across America have been figuring out how free speech squares with our time's dominant communication form, including deciding whom public officials can block. Earlier this month, in the highest-profile case, a federal appeals court ruled unanimously that President Trump, who conducts government business via Twitter, violated critics' First Amendment rights when he blocked them on the platform.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., faces two federal lawsuits for blocking critics on Twitter. Cases in Texas and Virginia have had similar outcomes to the Trump case. And in Florida, a U.S. District Court judge ruled last August that the Washington County Clerk of Court's office violated the First Amendment when it deleted comments and blocked access to its Facebook page.

A key in some of these cases has been distinguishing between "personal" and "professional" accounts. In addition to his personal profile, Champion has a page, Champion 4 Hernando Commissioner, dedicated to his 2020 re-election campaign. He said he hasn't blocked anyone from that page, which dates back to 2015 and has more than 2,000 likes. He doesn't appear to have a public Twitter account.

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He pointed out several other social media pages where constituents can access information, including a Hernando County Government page on Facebook. He hadn't heard about the recent Trump ruling, he said, and though he planned to research it, he didn't think he'd reconsider his position.

"To tell you the truth, I don't care what anybody thinks," he said. "Tell them to make me."

As soon as an elected official discusses government business on his profile, it ceases to be personal, said First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen.

"I think that he has created a public forum — maybe a limited public forum, but a public forum."

Petersen added, "The courts, more and more and more, are saying the same thing. ... It's either keep it purely private or, I'm sorry, but you kind of have to accept the consequences."

County attorney Garth Coller did not respond to a request for comment. Champion said Coller has never advised him on blocking people on social media.

Jodie Pillarella of Hernando Beach said she was shocked when Champion blocked her, around the time in early 2018 she spoke out against a proposal to build a swimming area in the Weekiwachee Preserve near her community. She later became one of the first members of the Facebook group.

"What is he saying that's so private?" Pillarella said. "He doesn't want input from the residents that he's elected to serve."

Pillarella and Detwiler both worry Champion's blocking practice has broader implications. Pillarella suggested Champion could present comments on his page to show that actions he supports have public favor — because dissenters can't comment. And for people who can't make it to County Commission meetings, which take place Tuesday mornings, Detwiler said access to an official on social media can feel like a substitute for in-person public comment.

"These people pay your wages," Detwiler said. "You're a civil servant."

Detwiler fears Champion could give other officials the impression that it's okay to do the same, he said. He plans to continue his vocal criticism of Champion in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

Champion needs 1,500 people to sign a petition for him to make the ballot. Before social media, a candidate may have knocked on doors, set up a table outside a grocery store or rubbed elbows at party events to gather signatures.

Champion posted on Facebook.

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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