By Haskel Burns | Hub City Spokes | January 7, 2021

Petal Mayor Hal Marx, who has come under fire in recent months for comments on social media, said he will discontinue his official Facebook page after the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi sent a letter to him – along with four other public officials across the state – alleging the officials have violated the First Amendment by blocking critics on their social media pages.

The letter, which was sent Jan. 6, states the organization has received reports that members of the public have been blocked from Marx’s page after posting critical comments. Although those particular posts have been deleted, ACLU representatives say public officials are not allowed to censor critical viewpoints on social media.

“I keep Petal residents informed in a variety of ways,” Marx said. “For the most part, I have discontinued having an official page on Facebook, because trolls have taken over and filled it with profanity and personal attacks.

“They aren’t using it for information, nor do most of them reside in Petal. It’s a shame bad people can ruin everything for the good people. I will simply discontinue my official page. Problem solved.”

The ACLU letter goes on to say that the First Amendment protects speech on social media regarding policies and practices of public officials, and the comment sections of any official government pages are designated public forums. As such, those forums are “created by the government designation of a place or channel of communication for use by the public at large for assembly and speech, for use by certain speakers, or for the discussion of certain subjects.”

The ACLU also contends that Marx intentionally opened his social media account as a forum for speech and interactions, and the page was managed by him or at his discretion. The account was used to communicate information with the public in many instances, such as on April 18, 2020, when a post was made about severe weather, and on April 7, 2020, when Marx commented about water pressure in Petal.

Therefore, the ACLU alleges, Marx’s blocking of online critics was viewpoint discrimination, which is unconstitutional.

“The Supreme Court of the United States has made clear that viewpoint discrimination is never constitutionally permissible in any type of forum, including designated public forums, as here,” the letter states. “Even in a limited public forum or a nonpublic forum, where the standard of analysis may be more permissive than in a designated public forum, viewpoint discrimination is unconstitutional.

“We understand that your current priority is to keep the City of Petal safe during this COVID-19 pandemic, and we appreciate everything that your administration is doing to ensure that. However, blocking constituents on your official page is unconstitutional and a court would very likely find as such.”

The ACLU sent similar letters to Gov. Tate Reeves, Congressman Steven Palazzo, former Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, and the Jones County Sheriff’s Office.