When Online Civility Tested, Lawmakers Hit 'Block' Button
Anyone who follows Utah politics or the hashtag #utpol on Twitter knows Republican state Sen. Todd Weiler. He freely admits he can be pretty sarcastic online. He pokes fun at liberals, current events and his tortured love of BYU football.
“It lets me show another side of my personality that you’re not going to see at a town hall or if you email me,” he says. “And I kind of like to show people who I really am. And it’s not a mean, nasty person, but it is someone who likes to laugh at himself and occasionally laugh at others.”
But Weiler can’t always take a joke. And he says he doesn’t do it all that often, but he does block people.
And he's not alone. President Trump does it. Members of Congress do it. Even local county and city officials are routinely muting people who bug them online. It's a growing habit among public officials amid a decline in political civility.
“The disrespect you show your constituents is appalling…”
That’s Jessica Rawson, who goes by the Twitter handle JunieB1979, reading a Tweet she sent Weiler last February.
A little backstory here. Jessica Rawson is not Weiler’s constituent. She lives in Kaysville. But she is passionate about air quality, which is a hot-button issue in Salt Lake, especially in the wintertime when inversions happen.
the disrespect you show your constituents is appalling. We are all chocking, and want to see serious action on this issue!— JunieB1979 (@junieb1979) February 7, 2017
Rawson saw Weiler Tweet an email from a constituent about air quality and felt he was unfairly mocking them. So she responded.
“We are all choking and want to see serious action on the issue,” she Tweeted.
And just like that, Weiler blocked her.
So a couple weeks ago, while talking to the senator about his online habits, I asked if he’d be willing to talk to Rawson. To my surprise, he agreed.
JULIA: Hey, this is Julia at KUER News, I’m actually sitting here with Sen. Todd Weiler right now. So I was just going to put you on speaker phone really quick.
WEILER: Hi, Jessica.
RAWSON: Hello, good morning.
WEILER Good morning.
Rawson, who was new to Twitter at the time, says she was really surprised when it happened.
RAWSON: I'd never been blocked by anyone, and my comment was critical, but I didn’t feel like it was block worthy. ...And I felt like there were other people on his feed that were expressing the same concern about the way he was treating his constituents.
JULIA: So I’ll give Sen. Weiler a chance to respond...
WEILER: My guess was you caught me when the air quality outside was bad, because it’s always bad February, typically. And it was during the session… you were probably the eighth or ninth or tenth person who blamed me for the bad air that day and I just probably had enough and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to put up with this.'
Being one of the most active members of the Utah legislature online means Weiler attracts more flak than most. He says he only really has issues with people who make personal attacks on him, his family or his LDS faith.
John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, says, yes, obscenity and personal threats are out of line. But they’ve noticed more lawmakers — both Democrats and Republican — are blurring the line between what is and isn’t acceptable speech.
“The problem is when any state official or any government official in the United States opens up a public forum and starts censoring based on viewpoint,” he says.
“From our perspective, if you’re blocking somebody from commenting, or even receiving your comments, that’s a form of censorship that we felt had to stop.”
Mejia’s office has received complaints about blocking by members of Utah’s federal delegation – Congresswoman Mia Love in particular.
A spokesman for Love, Richard Piatt, says it’s rare for them. But those who do get blocked usually have committed what he called “egregious” violations – that includes racial slurs and profanity.
Mejia is willing to cut the delegation some slack. He says it’s a new form of engagement for many public officials and there’s a learning curve involved.
“You know I’m afraid it might be one of those issues where you stumble along until everybody eventually learns,” he says. “Enforcing First Amendment rights and standing up for the First Amendment really is an issue that never dies.”
In the meantime, there are lawsuits pending against President Trump and other elected officials over this very issue.
Enforcing First Amendment rights and standing up for the First Amendment really is an issue that never dies. - John Mejia, ACLU Utah
As for Sen. Weiler and Jessica Rawson, they talked for almost half an hour. Rawson said she did some more research after being blocked and learned Weiler is a member of the clean air caucus - he’s actually worked to address the issue she cares about most.
During their conversation, it came out that Rawson had texted Weiler about another issue a few weeks later and he responded politely. Weiler admits he doesn’t take Twitter that seriously, and maybe that’s the problem.
"Twitter is more of a game for me," he says. "I learn a lot on Twitter. And I have never tried to cocoon myself like some people do, to only have an echo chamber where I only hear what other Republicans are saying."
Before they ended the call, Weiler told Rawson he had unblocked her and he hopes they stay in touch.
WEILER: I’m not a mean person in real life, and I’m not typically a mean person on Twitter.
RAWSON: Hopefully that’s the same for me, right?
WEILER: I appreciate the dialogue. I’m glad you texted me, I’m glad I responded, so please continue to do that.
JULIA: Thanks, Jessica.
RAWSON: Thanks; great conservation.
JULIA: How do you feel having just talked to her?
WEILER: I feel a lot better about it.
JULIA: Does that show you that online is not real life?
WEILER: Yeah, it’s not real life.
Both said they learned a lot from their conversation. Rawson says she doesn’t want to seem like some kind of online troll, and Weiler says he doesn’t either.
He says the phone call reminds him that the most meaningful engagement happens through talking to one another – not in 140 characters.
Our reporter's original Tweet asking for stories from people being blocked by lawmakers generated more than 30 replies.