A new ordinance that would have fined Hoboken elected officials $500 for each resident they blocked on social media failed on first reading with a 4-5 vote.
The legislation, sponsored by Council members Phil Cohen, Emily Jabbour, and Michael Russo, came about after the council members said they received complaints from residents who were blocked on Twitter and Facebook by Councilman Michael DeFusco.
The trio said the ordinance aimed to protect the First Amendment rights of constituents and ensured that council members would hear multiple opinions on any matter.
The officials would not have had to pay the fine in the instance of targeted harassment as defined by the social media platform. But with the failure of the ordinance they remain free to block anyone they want.
“As elected officials, we should be embracing a diversity of opinions and respecting the very valid questions that may be raised by individuals and constituents,” said Russo. “We need to allow full access to our residents. Blocking those opinions and limiting access runs counter to everything we should believe in as leaders in office, and I’m glad to co-sponsor this ordinance to ensure every individual in this great city can make their voices heard without restriction while providing full access to those they choose to lead.”
According to the ACLU, if social media is used by a public official to conduct government business, blocking members of the public from seeing the site or from posting comments may violate the First Amendment. However, blocking someone on a site used for official government business is not always illegal, and if public officials are using social media as private persons, the First Amendment protects their right to limit their audience.
Opponents call it an ‘overreach’
Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher said she opposed the ordinance prior to the meeting calling it another political stunt ahead of the November election in which residents will vote for mayor and three at-large council people. So far Mayor Ravi Bhalla is running unopposed for a second term, but many believe DeFusco will also run.
“This is an incredible overreach of local government and a political stunt that has a real potential to weaponize local campaigns, “ Fisher said. “We should leave it to the courts to decide First Amendment rights, not a local municipal prosecutor.”
The council does not discuss introductory ordinances on first reading nor did the measure reach the stage when the public could comment. Council members Cohen, Jabbour, Russo, and Doyle voted in the ordinance’s favor while council members Fisher, DeFusco, Vanessa Falco, Jen Giattino, and Ruben Ramos voted against the measure.
Though the measure failed by a slim margin, Jabbour and Cohen said they were glad they put forward the ordinance.
“While we would have liked to have seen this ordinance advance to second reading so that the public could weigh in on this matter of great public interest, we are gratified that by our introducing this legislation. Councilman DeFusco has now “unblocked” many individuals he had previously prohibited from engaging on his ‘Councilman Mike DeFusco’ social media platforms … We strongly maintain that any official social media account which communicates about official city business must not unfairly censor individuals and infringe on First Amendment rights,” said Cohen and Jabbour in a joint statement.