LAND O’LAKES — Kurt Browning knew his bid for a third term as Pasco County schools superintendent wouldn’t win universal acclaim.
His critics surely would “hammer” him on social media, Browning predicted. He said he’d steer clear of the negative commentary, if at all possible.
But Browning peeked.
Several folks had taken to the web to blast Browning as “inept,” “corrupt” and worse. They attacked his record, his decisions, his demeanor.
The barrage got to him. And in a snap decision he’d come to regret, Browning blocked perhaps his fiercest opponent — Trinity resident Jim Stanley — from his Twitter and Facebook accounts.
“When a public official creates a social media page ... they have created a public forum of sorts under the First Amendment, to which First Amendment rights attach, and they can’t block people,” said Barbara Petersen, the longtime head of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation.
If used to discuss taxpayer business, the accounts are not private.
It’s a lesson that even President Donald Trump had to learn after two courts ruled this year he could not bar critics from his keenly watched Twitter account, which he considered “personal.” So, too, have local officials including the Washington County, Fla., clerk of courts, who deleted comments and blocked access of a political rival to the office Facebook account in 2016.
“Do we allow only those comments that are positive and supportive?" Petersen asked. “That would be as if you went to a school board meeting and were only allowed to make positive comments, keep your criticisms to yourself.”
Stanley, a business consultant, quickly made noises about taking legal action over the online ban.
If anyone might act, it would be him.
The vocal parent with a conservative political bent has found fault with Browning ever since the district reassigned his subdivision from nearby Mitchell High School to the slightly more distant River Ridge. He sued the district over its actions and processes, losing some and winning some.
In the days after Browning said he’d seek reelection, Stanley reheated his attacks. He blasted Browning for past budget decisions and planning efforts, as well as for the district’s middling academic outcomes.
He used the sentencing of a former assistant principal on child pornography charges to call out the "latest monster lurking in Pasco County Schools under Kurt Browning’s ‘leadership.’” He focused on a television report of a school custodian’s apparent suicide attempt to trash Browning’s explanations as “angry, dismissive, mocking, callous. Not the qualities of a leader or even a decent human being.”
Others joined the fray.
In what he called an unthinking moment, Browning turned Stanley off.
“I’m in public life for over 40 years. My skin is pretty doggone thick,” said Browning, also a former secretary of state and longtime elections supervisor. “It’s just social media has allowed people to say things without having the rest of the story, and people just start piling on.”
Stanley took advantage of the moment to further attack Browning for what he termed “illegal and cowardly acts.”
He explained that he has a right to critique the school district’s activities, and acknowledged he has done so vehemently.
Browning has "been in elective office for nearly four decades and should be accustomed to criticism, and his reaction to it demonstrates an astonishing degree of insecurity,” Stanley said via email. “My activism is and always has been about accountability from our public officials. They serve the public, and as such they should act in the best interests of the people they serve and they should follow the laws they took oaths to uphold.”
Stanley stressed that he never used inappropriate language that might warrant getting banned from the accounts, and he expected a quick reversal. Which he got.
Soon after hearing from his staff that he was on shaky ground, Browning unblocked Stanley on Twitter. On Facebook, where unblocking is not a choice, Browning sent a new “friend” request to his critic, who accepted.
“We’re back in the circle again,” Browning said.
He added that he hoped Stanley and anyone else with questions, concerns or issues with his leadership would simply call, so they can have a conversation “like two grown adults.”
For his own part, Stanley said he intended to keep up the drumbeat against Browning.
“Since he is running,” Stanley said, “I will continue to (do) what I can to draw attention to his failures in an effort to see him replaced by a true leader who will serve our students, parents and taxpayers with honor and excellence.”
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at firstname.lastname@example.org.