Staff Columnist

In Iowa: Illegal or not, blocking constituents is bad policy

West Des Moines Democrat Claire Celsi's Twitter tactics draw criticism

People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken in Warsaw, Poland, in 2013. (Reuters)
People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken in Warsaw, Poland, in 2013. (Reuters)
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Freedom-loving Americans agree it’s inappropriate for President Donald Trump to block citizens on social media. More than a bad idea, it’s illegal, the courts found.

Is it just as bad when a state lawmaker goes on a blocking spree, including shutting out a political journalist? Some Iowans are wondering.

Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, finds herself in the middle of a national controversy over free speech and government transparency.


It started earlier this month when Celsi, one of the Iowa Legislature’s most vocal gun control advocates, engaged in a debate with pro-gun activists on Twitter.

One Twitter user wrote to Celsi that, if it was up to “tyrants the likes of you,” the government would take away citizens’ guns.

“So if I were you, I’d start being nice to me,” Celsi wrote in response.

Predictably, that reply did not sit well with my fellow firearms enthusiasts. The tweet quickly drew dozens of hostile responses, and screenshots spread to all corners of the pro-gun media world.

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“I made an ill-conceived joke, I forgot to put a happy face on it, and it was completely blown out of proportion,” Celsi told me during a recent phone interview.

Celsi said she went into “self-preservation mode” and began blocking what she called “abusive” Twitter accounts. In her fervor, however, she blacklisted more than just internet trolls.

Even yours truly was swept up in the purge.

I reposted her “start being nice to me” message and asked, “Is this how representative democracy works?” Even if it was a joke, it’s in bad taste for an elected official.

That might have been mildly snarky, but it was hardly abusive. Nevertheless, within an hour of my posting, I was blocked from seeing any of Celsi’s Twitter activity. Shortly thereafter, she made her account protected, meaning only preapproved followers could see her posts.

I am just a lowly conservative commentator at a news organization outside Celsi’s district. Twitter has not bestowed me with the coveted blue check mark, noting I am a verified public figure. I give Celsi the benefit of the doubt that she didn’t immediately recognize me as a journalist.

Still, my Twitter bio clearly notes I am an Iowa newspaper columnist. Blocking critics without taking the time to read their short profiles — to see if they are constituents, perhaps — obviously is bad form. Celsi apologized for blocking me during our recent conversation, but as of this writing — more than 24 hours after that interview — I’m still blocked.

An attorney for the Libertarian Party of Iowa sent Celsi a letter recently, urging her to unblock Iowans on Twitter. The letter provided a list of 10 blocked accounts operated by Iowans, some of whom live in Celsi’s district, according to party leaders.

“It would be utterly shameful if the purpose of blocking constituents from your social media accounts or email was simply because they disagree with you,” wrote Jules Ofenbakh, a lawyer and the 2018 Libertarian candidate for Iowa secretary of state.

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The letter argues Celsi’s blocking of constituents is a violation of state and federal law, citing cases where courts found it was illegal for public officials to restrict access to their digital media.

In the most recent case — Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump — the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit found that Trump’s personal Twitter account is used to conduct official government business, and therefore blocking Americans is a violation of the First Amendment.

However, the court also noted, “not every social media account operated by a public official is a government account.” So it’s not obvious state senators’ Twitter accounts are held to the same standard as the president’s.

I don’t know if Celsi’s conduct is illegal, but it’s a challenge worth vetting and I applaud the Libertarians for their effort. Regardless of what the law says, it’s plainly anti-democratic for elected officials to block journalists and constituents on social media.

Even as I firmly condemn the practice of shutting out political critics, I also recognize Celsi is a victim of the same toxic internet culture that makes political discourse unbearable for normal people. Obviously, she was too trigger-happy with the “block” button, but on some level, I can empathize with her frustration.

“I get an incredible number of trolls and nuts because I’m an elected official. I don’t feel like I have to establish any sort of relationship with them. That’s kind of a rule in social media — as long as you’re nice to me and as long as you’re civil, even if you disagree, I’m still going to have a conversation with you,” Celsi said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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