PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Can you sue a public organization for blocking you on social media? The issue was up for debate in federal court on Friday where attorneys for Portland State University professor Bruce Gilley and retired University of Oregon Communications Manager Tova Stabin met to parse out the details leading up to what Gilley’s attorneys call “viewpoint discrimination.”
The incident in question occurred on June 14, 2022, when the University of Oregon’s Division of Equity and Inclusion Twitter account posted a “racism interrupter prompt,” or — as explained by Stabin, the former account coordinator — a way to address discriminatory remarks in a way that initiates constructive conversations.
The prompt Stabin posted was: “It sounds like you just said [blank]. Is that what you meant?”
Later that day, Gilley encountered Oregon’s Equity and Inclusion post and retweeted it with, “All men are created equal” as his response to the blank entry, later retweeting a second entry of, “The self-style anti-racists are the biggest racists in the room.”
Gilley, a political science professor at Portland State, is no stranger to controversy. In 2017, he wrote the thesis “The Case for Colonialism” and his Twitter bio reads “advocate of western colonialism and settler colonialism.” According to Gilley, his initial response quoting the U.S. Declaration of Independence “promotes his viewpoint of colorblindness and equality, not equity.”
By June 19, Gilley realized Oregon’s Twitter page had blocked him, tweeting: “So, @UOequity has blocked me. Legal question: is it legal for a public body to prohibit a citizen from viewing its social media communications?”
Assumedly without answers, Gilley filed a public records request on July 5 for the policy utilized by the university’s Office of the Vice President for Equity and Inclusion to block Twitter users. The school replied stating there was no written policy and that staff members administer the Twitter account autonomously, using professional judgement when deciding to block users.
The university additionally informed Gilley that two other accounts were blocked, both of which “have expressed politically conservative viewpoints,” according to Gilley’s lawsuit, which he happened to file in August after also receiving Stabin’s email records.
Stabin admitted in court that she wrote her emails quickly and without much thought. In one email she wrote Gilley’s record request was “not surprising” and called his behavior “obnoxious” in another. It was phrases like these that Gilley’s lawyers said Stabin participated in “viewpoint discrimination,” which they say was also evident in the way she only blocked users who were critical of diversity, equity and inclusion.
However, when Gilley’s lawyer Endel Kolde asked Stabin if she disagreed with Gilley’s initial retweet because it contained gendered language, she replied, “It never crossed my mind to disagree with the statement because it said ‘men’ in it,” as “it’s a quote from a historical document.”
When asked why she blocked Gilley in the first place, Stabin said she was confused about his reply and was aware of the university's guidelines enough to know she could block users who retweeted off-topic replies.
"I looked further and saw he retweeted and was concerned it was something meant to disrupt our site," Stabin said.
In response to Gilley’s lawsuit, Oregon’s Equity and Inclusion Twitter unblocked him, yet the professor says he’s still concerned he could be blocked again for expressing criticisms of diversity, equity and inclusion, “thereby inviting self-censorship.”
“By enforcing UO’s social media guidelines, Defendants, under color of law, deprive and continue to deprive Plaintiff, and other similarly situated persons, of the right to free speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution,” wrote Gilley in the lawsuit.
Stabin’s defense argued the case is moot because there’s no more meaningful relief now that Gilley is unblocked and that Stabin no longer works at the university. Moreover, her defense said the school has no pattern of randomly blocking people for critical viewpoints, and that Gilley’s request of a preliminary injunction reflects the reality that litigation takes a long time, yet there’s no current injury against him.
“They have showed no ongoing harm,” said attorney Misha Isaak.
U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez concluded the hearing by giving both attorneys until January to send their replies. Neither Gilley nor Stabin could comment for the story in time for publication.
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