The operator of a Facebook page that promotes the political views of Republican Gov. Paul LePage has settled a federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Maine by agreeing to stop blocking users who post critical comments.

The ACLU argued that blocking critics from posting on “Paul LePage, Maine’s Governor” was a violation of their civil rights. Facebook photo

However, the settlement agreement also allows Le- Page to continue to assert that the page is not a state government operation but a place for those who support his political views.

The ACLU of Maine filed the civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Karin Leuthy and Kelli Whitlock Burton in August 2017 after the women were blocked from posting on “Paul LePage, Maine’s Governor” and comments they made there were deleted. According to the complaint, those actions violated the women’s 1st Amendment rights of free speech and also their right to petition their government under the 14th Amendment.

Both Leuthy and Whitlock Burton are leaders with the progressive activist group Suit Up Maine, which uses Facebook and other social media platforms as a way to get its messages out.

Leuthy said in an interview Monday that she was disappointed the lawsuit didn’t make it to court because she believes they had a strong case. But she was glad the settlement restores the rights of those who were blocked and stops LePage or his staff from censoring citizens going forward.

“Time was just not on our side,” Leuthy said, noting that if they had continued to pursue the case after LePage left office, they would have risked seeing progress they had made in the case thrown out. She said it was unclear how many Facebook users were blocked from LePage’s page and that the number was concealed as part of the settlement.

“But we are satisfied with the settlement because at least we have a few weeks to have our rights restored,” Leuthy said. “In the end, this case wasn’t just about us, but about any Mainer who was being censored by their government.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit also referenced a remark that LePage made in a 2017 radio appearance about his efforts to bypass the media by using the Facebook page.

“They’re so bad,” LePage said, referring to journalists. “And you know what we found that works? We go Facebook Live and we ignore them and they get even angrier.”

It is unclear whether the page will continue after LePage leaves office in January. Brent Littlefield, who operates the page as the governor’s political adviser, did not respond to a request for comment Monday. Under the agreement, the obligation to stop blocking critical comments ends Jan. 2, when LePage’s term expires.

Emma Bond, staff attorney with the ACLU of Maine, said she does not know why the LePage camp agreed to the settlement.

“What we do know is that the court recognized our case raised important constitutional issues, and ruled to let it go forward. After that, the defendants opted to settle,” Bond said.

LePage’s official staff long has argued that it does not operate the page, although at one point a link to the page was included on LePage’s state government website. The link was removed shortly after the first complaints of censorship surfaced. Posts on the page also are frequently made in the first person and appear to be messages directly from LePage.

A notice of the settlement on the page, “Paul LePage, Maine’s Governor,” places some of the blame on Facebook for labels it placed on the page and other actions that may have led viewers of the page to be “confused about its status and may have believed this page was run by staff in state government.” LePage tried to have the suit dismissed, but U.S. District Judge John Woodcock Jr. denied that motion in August.

The notice of the settlement says the page was created in 2009 to support LePage’s campaign for the governor’s office. He was first elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014.

“The page has been labeled as a page to support Governor LePage since its creation,” the notice states.

The comments deleted from the page came after a post about the Fourth of July that appeared to be a message from LePage.

“Today we remember our nation’s roots and what it means to live in a free country,” the post read. “It is our job to instill these values in generations to come to protect the American Dream. Wishing you all a safe and happy 4th of July.”

Whitlock Burton, one of the plaintiffs, commented that several people were being blocked from commenting on the page and that others had comments deleted.

“I have seen screen shots of the comments,” she wrote,” and they are not inappropriate, profane or disrespectful. They only disagree with your stance on certain issues and events.”

As part of the settlement, which the notice said was made in part to “show good will toward our fellow citizens,” those who believe they were unfairly blocked can email the ACLU of Maine at [email protected] by Thursday to request reinstatement under the terms of the settlement.

The LePage Facebook issue echoed a legal dispute over President Trump’s use of Twitter and his practice of blocking people from accessing his tweets or being able to respond to him. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University in New York, joined by seven individual Twitter users, won a federal suit against the president in May when a federal judge ruled that Trump’s blocking of people who mocked, criticized or disagreed with him was unconstitutional.

“Kelli and I are now officially unblocked and I am very much enjoying the restoration of my rights to petition my government!” Leuthy, one of the plaintiffs, wrote Saturday in a post on Facebook that urged others to contact the ACLU if they also were blocked from commenting on the page.

In a post on the page Thursday that credits LePage with a state budget surplus, Whitlock Burton commented: “Your surplus came at the expense of food, housing, health care and other vital services for the poor, the sick, children and the elderly. One in four Maine children are hungry, we are the only state in the country with a rising infant mortality rate, child poverty is growing at a rate 8 times higher than the national average, and the opioid epidemic has grown unchecked.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: thisdog

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