PROVIDENCE — Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt has agreed to no longer block critics from her Facebook page as part of the settlement of a First Amendment lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the ACLU announced Wednesday.
The ACLU filed the suit on behalf of Woonsocket residents Greg Duhamel and Thomas Dubois, who say they were blocked from commenting on the mayor’s Facebook page after they questioned or criticized her.
The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Providence, claimed the mayor had violated their First Amendment rights to speak in a public forum and petition their government for a redress of grievances.
In settling the lawsuit, the city agreed that Duhamel and Dubois and anyone previously banned from Baldelli-Hunt’s Facebook page have now been unblocked. The city agreed that no one else will be blocked from the Facebook page “based on First Amendment-protected viewpoints expressed,” and it agreed to pay $7,000 in attorneys’ fees and court costs to the ACLU and its lawyers.
“The First Amendment wins the day, and the value of being able to question the government through free speech remains strong,” Dubois said in a statement. “I am thankful that this issue of censorship could be resolved. Government leadership can only be effective when it listens to, and values, both supporting and dissenting opinions.”
“I hope this has demonstrated that public officials should listen to the people no matter what platform they use,” Duhamel said. “Not everyone can make it to town/city meetings, not everyone has the opportunity to be heard, and when it comes to local happenings in communities, I deeply believe our elected officials ought to face the critics in the community.”
ACLU cooperating attorney David Cass said the agreement recognizes the principle that a government official’s social media account is a public forum on which “viewpoint censorship” is not allowed.
“The First Amendment protections and the fundamental principles of speech, protest, and redress must be protected as technological platforms for communication advance and change the way we interact as a society,” he said.
According to the complaint, Baldelli-Hunt banned Duhamel from her Facebook page last November, after he challenged a post in which the mayor claimed credit for the building of a local skate park. She banned Dubois from the page in June after he commented on a post from the mayor, asking about construction taking place at a local park.
Earlier this month, Woonsocket City Solicitor John DeSimone told the Globe that Baldelli-Hunt considers that her personal Facebook page. “It’s not affiliated with the city at all,” he said.
And in any case, DeSimone said, the mayor has been meaning to allow Duhamel and Dubois to access the Facebook page again. “She intended to put them back on a while ago,” he said. “So it will be a moot issue.”
DeSimone could not be reached immediately Wednesday.