Only one Santa Clara lawmaker has blocked people on social media
The Santa Clara City Council meets on June 26 for its twice-monthly meeting. Credit: Janice Bitters

Three months after a judge ruled it unconstitutional for President Donald Trump to block critics on Twitter, local politicians like San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo have scurried to unblock hundreds of accounts from their social media channels.

But not in Santa Clara.

That’s because none of the seven policymakers, including Mayor Lisa Gillmor, reported blocking anyone on their official Twitter or Facebook accounts. The only exception is Councilmember Kathy Watanabe. Well, sort of.

In response to a public records request from San José Spotlight, Watanabe turned over a list of about 80 people who were blocked from her Facebook account, which she has since made into a personal account.

In August, about a month after the ruling on Trump’s Twitter account and days after this news organization requested the block lists for city elected leaders, Watanabe created a new official Facebook account where she shares information about Santa Clara events and council actions. She turned her previous profile — which had the blocked accounts — into a personal one.

“As a result of the ruling, no one is blocked from my council accounts,” Watanabe said.

The list of blocked accounts on Watanabe’s now-personal Facebook includes a wide array of profiles, including a small number who live in Santa Clara or around the Bay Area.

But most of the blocked accounts reviewed by this news organization aren’t owned by Santa Clarans or even Californians. In fact, many of the accounts match the names that were caught up in a 2017 hoax that made some Facebook users believe they were being “followed” on the social media platform by strangers invading their privacy from around the world.

Her new councilmember Facebook account is clearly marked, reading “Kathy Watanabe, Councilmember, District 1, City of Santa Clara.” She also has a Twitter and LinkedIn account that she uses for council business.

Many people — elected to a public office or not — block users from their Facebook or Twitter accounts, a move meant to ramp up privacy and bar “trolls” from viewing their posts. But it’s more complicated when you’re an elected official.

Elected officials’ block lists have garnered new attention this year after the lawsuit over Trump’s Twitter account. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals last summer maintained it was unconstitutional for the president to block critics from his personal @DonaldTrump Twitter profile because he uses the account for matters related to his presidency, making it a public forum of sorts.

Now, the ruling is having ripple effects on how people think about local elected officials.

“I think the best practice for public officials is to either not block anyone on social media, or to come up with carefully considered ‘rules’ for blocking users — rules based on uniformly applied criteria that ensure individuals are not blocked because of their political viewpoint,” David Snyder, executive director at the First Amendment Coalition, told San José Spotlight. “The latter would have to be done very carefully to avoid running afoul of the First Amendment. Completely arbitrary blocking would likely not pass muster with a court.”

A records request from August found Liccardo was the only member of the San Jose City Council who blocked accounts on social media. The mayor quickly began reinstating hundreds of accounts following the ruling around Trump’s Twitter account.

In 2017, Mayor Gillmor blocked then-Mercury News reporter Ramona Giwargis — who is now the co-founder of San José Spotlight — after publishing an unflattering article about the city’s use of a public relations company. Gillmor later reinstated Giwargis’ access.

Gillmor reported having no blocked accounts on her social media profiles, according to the recent records request.

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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