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PHILADELPHIA — A coalition of three law firms filed a complaint in U.S. District Court against Montgomery County Commissioner Joseph C. Gale, asking a judge to stop Gale from censoring the opinions of his constituents on his official social media platforms.

“Courts around the country have held that elected officials cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination on the official social media pages that they use to communicate with the public,” said Joseph P. Walsh, a Lansdale lawyer and former county judge who represents the plaintiffs. “Commissioner Gale has the constitutional right to say what he pleases, but he does not have the right to quash the voice of opposition to posts he makes in his role as a public official.”

In the suit filed late Monday, seven constituents alleged they were blocked by Gale on social media after posting comments critical of him on his official Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. An eighth constituent wished to view the full range of dialogue on Gale’s social media pages but was prevented from doing so by Gale’s selective deletion of unfavorable comments, the complaint alleged.

“When Commissioner Gale used his elected office to issue a press statement that I found abusive and divisive, I immediately criticized that statement on the social media pages where he shared it,” said plaintiff Abby Deardorff of Limerick, “When I discovered that Commissioner Gale had then blocked me from posting on those pages, I knew my rights were being violated and that I had to fight back.”

The complaint seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, maintaining that without such relief, Gale’s “impermissible censorship will continue, resulting in further immediate and future irreparable harm to plaintiffs and others.”

The complaint further seeks an order requiring Gale to unblock the constituents and restore their access to each of Gale’s social media accounts.

The complaint was filed by lawyer Philip Press, of Norristown; Walsh Pancio, LLC of Lansdale; and Mudrick & Zucker, P.C. of Blue Bell on behalf of the eight constituents.

It’s unclear when a federal judge might schedule a hearing on the request for the temporary restraining order. The lawyers have requested to present oral arguments in the case.

Samantha Harris, of the Mudrick & Zucker firm, said other courts have held that interactive statements on a public official’s social media pages “constitute a public forum and that viewpoint discrimination in those spaces violates the First Amendment.”

“So when you have something like a county commissioner selectively deleting critical comments from his social media pages and blocking critics, that is a serious First Amendment issue and so that’s what prompted the lawsuit,” Harris explained during an interview.

“He’s depriving people like our eighth plaintiff of the ability to actually see the full range of dialogue around this and creating a false impression that there’s no controversy around what he says and that no one disagrees with the positions that he’s taking as a public official when in fact that isn’t true, he’s just hiding that from the public,” Harris added.

The suit lists Gale, of Plymouth, individually and in his official capacity as commissioner and Friends of Joe Gale, which according to the complaint is an organization that assists Gale in the operation and maintenance of his social media accounts.

In addition to Deardorff, the constituents listed as plaintiffs in the suit include: Bryan Oteri, of Lower Gwynedd; Monica D’Antonio, of West Norriton, an associate professor of English at Montgomery County Community College and a member of the Norristown Area School Board and the West Norriton Human Relations Commission; Elaine Hannock, of Marlborough Township; Karen Hayman, of West Norriton; Zak Hutchinson, of Upper Moreland; Elizabeth C. Brooks, of Springfield; and Caroline & Co. Media, doing business as SAVVY Mainline based in Tredyffrin Township, Chester County, a monthly online publication that regularly reports on events, activities, and news items of interest in Montgomery County and the Main Line.

In court documents, the lawyers said that on June 9 they notified Gale in a “demand letter” that “continued viewpoint discrimination” would trigger the civil action.

According to the complaint, Gale now claims that the social media accounts at issue are “private.” But the complaint maintains that any steps Gale took to make those accounts appear private were “after-the-fact actions taken in a deliberate attempt to avoid accountability for defendants’ censorship.”

On Tuesday, Gale’s Twitter account read, “This is Not a Public Platform or Official Government Page.”

Responding to the complaint on Tuesday, Gale said a lawyer for the plaintiffs is a former Republican turned Democrat "who is jealous of my success and desperate to appease Democratic Party bosses "and their militant army of far-left trolls."

"Agitators, anarchists and agent provocateurs will not be allowed to spew their lies and hate on my personal and campaign social media platforms. I have already had to contact the police because of violent threats to my personal safety," Gale responded.

In a June 1 statement entitled “Riots & Looting In Philadelphia,” issued on letterhead bearing the seal of Montgomery County and under Gale’s official title as commissioner, the lone Republican on the three-member commissioners’ board compared the Black Lives Matter group to “far-left radical enemy combatants.”

“In fact, nearly every major city across the nation was ravaged by looting, violence and arson. The perpetrators of this urban domestic terror are radical left-wing hate groups like Black Lives Matter,” Gale, elected in 2015 and re-elected to another four-year term in 2019, wrote.

“This organization, in particular, screams racism not to expose bigotry and injustice, but to justify the lawless destruction of our cities and surrounding communities. Their objective is to unleash chaos and mayhem without consequence by falsely claiming they, in fact, are the victims,” Gale continued.

The complaint maintained Gale published his press release over social media during the workday, at 4 p.m.

“Gale gave the statement the utmost appearance of an official proclamation in his capacity as a Montgomery County Commissioner. He issued the statement on letterhead purportedly bearing the seal of Montgomery County, and under his official title as Montgomery County Commissioner,” lawyers for the plaintiffs argued in the complaint.

Gale has not backed off from his position and he has fought calls for his resignation.

The June 1 statement drew immediate condemnation from multiple users across social media, multiple public officials, civic groups and other elected officials.

Critics who blasted Gale by responding to his social media pages later found their comments had been deleted and ultimately that Gale had blocked them, according to the suit.

Gale, the complaint alleged, uses his social media platforms, “under the color of his elected position,” to inform individuals about official Montgomery County policies and procedures being implemented and his viewpoints and dissatisfaction with actions taken by the two majority commissioners.

The complaint alleged that in a further attempt to curtail speech that he finds unfavorable, after publication of the June 1 statement, Gale sought to re-classify his publicly available and official social media pages as his “private” social media accounts.

“At no point, however, has Gale ceased referring to himself as a commissioner of Montgomery County, and at no time have defendants ceased uploading content that pertains exclusively to his activities in his official capacity as a commissioner,” the complaint alleged.

Gale’s establishment and maintenance of the social media accounts constituted public fora under the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions, the complaint alleged.

The attempted re-classification of the social media platforms into “private” accounts “is a thinly veiled attempt” to legitimize Gale’s unconstitutional actions, the complaint alleged.

“Defendants should not be able to escape the public fora that they created for free public speech and consumption merely by re-naming them,” the lawyers wrote in the complaint.

This article originally ran on pottsmerc.com.

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