In recent months, Montgomery County Commissioner Joseph C. Gale has been the subject of protests, scorn, and even formal censure from his colleagues over incendiary comments about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now, the sole Republican on the county’s governing board can no longer filter that criticism on his personal and campaign social media accounts, under a settlement reached in a federal lawsuit.
Gale is barred from blocking anyone from viewing his Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts, and has 10 days to reimburse the nearly $600 spent by a group of county residents to file the suit, according to a court order filed Friday and made publicly available late Monday.
The suit was brought in late June by eight of Gale’s constituents, including Abby Deardorff, a nurse from Royersford. Deardorff told The Inquirer in July that she was blocked after calling Gale racist for labeling Black Lives Matter a “hate group.”
“He definitely has his right to say what he wants,” Deardorff said, “but he can’t suppress me as a constituent.”
The suit contended that Gale violated the group’s First Amendment right to criticize a public official by engaging in “viewpoint discrimination.”
Gale, in a statement Tuesday, said he still believes he has “every right to ban, block and delete” users on social media.
“However, after watching President Trump get screwed by federal courts on this very same issue, I had no doubt I too would be the victim of a bad ruling,” he added. Gale referred to a decision last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which ruled that the president could not block critics from viewing his Twitter account, saying it constituted a public forum.
The 31-year-old had previously called the local lawsuit “frivolous” and a “political stunt,” and said the lead attorney on the case, former county Judge Joseph P. Walsh, was trying to appease Democrats.
“But, to be honest, if I allow leftist agitators to troll and dog pile my social media accounts, they will trigger the Facebook and Twitter algorithms that determine what posts get shown to more people,” he said. “By unbanning and unblocking the Marxist mob, they will actually help me spread my message to more supporters and grow my base.”
One of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, Philip David Press, said Tuesday that the settlement and subsequent order was “vindicating.”
“Everyone here, the common thread, is that the plaintiffs don’t necessarily know one another,” he said. “They’re all county residents, and they’re all incensed that someone who’s an elected official for 800,000 people could silence their voices without a second thought.”