Ask a Reporter is an occasional series about civic engagement in and around the city.
Q: "My City Council Member is blocking protesters from social media. Is that a violation of the First Amendment?"
A community group fighting plans for a new Amazon headquarters in Long Island City claims their local Councilmember has unfairly blocked them on social media after they accused him of hypocrisy.
Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer has emerged as a vocal opponent of the Amazon proposal as put forth by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, but the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project (QAGP) remains skeptical of Van Bramer—and they’ve made sure he knows it.
“We were critical of the hypocrisy in this whole Amazon debacle,” said QAGP founder and organizer Michael Forest. QGAP is not convinced that Van Bramer is the champion for Long Island City that he claims to be.
The group has expressed its furor on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. In turn, they believe, Van Bramer has violated their First Amendment right to protest online.
In one QAGP post on Instagram, a text box displays a shortened version of a statement from Van Bramer that was originally reported by Queens Chronicle in October 2017. “I am an enthusiastic supporter of the proposal, and of any plan to bring good paying jobs to my district. I think it is clear that Amazon HQ2 would be an ideal fit for Long Island City and for the entire borough of Queens,” the full statement read.
Van Bramer, who also joined about 70 officials last year in signing a letter urging Amazon to choose New York, objects to the charge of hypocrisy. “If I knew then what I know now, I would never have signed on.”
Soon after the post, Forest says, the group was blocked from accessing Van Bramer’s Instagram account.
“Criticism is not what we take exception to,” said Van Bramer. “The Queens Anti-Gentrification project have threatened me physically.” When pressed for specifics, Van Bramer did not elaborate.
Forest denies this charge, though he did acknowledge that people associated with the group have occasionally heckled Van Bramer in his neighborhood, chanting, “Jimmy Van Bramer is a real estate puppet!” after QAGP determined that the Councilmember had accepted at least $106,834 in 2017 from “sources related to real estate.”
“I’d be upset, too,” Forest said, “But I’ve seen a lot worse, in terms of protest. I don’t think it’s anything a politician can’t handle.”
Still, Van Bramer believes he is justified in blocking members of the group on social media, citing in no specific detail, threats. “We’ve blocked them in consultation with the City Council’s lawyers,” he said. A spokesperson for Jason Otaño, the general counsel for the New York City Council, could not confirm that such a consultation took place, citing confidentiality rules.
“We allow folks to express a wide range of opinions on Amazon and on other issues,” Van Bramer said.
Forest is not convinced. “I think it is the criticism he takes exception to. We make harsh criticism, but it’s not just us.”
Two other Facebook users, Forest says, have been blocked from commenting on Van Bramer’s posts (though not blocked from accessing his Facebook profile as a whole), simply for expressing disagreement. One person wasn’t happy about a bike lane on Skillman Avenue in Queens.
Forest also objects to the charge of violence. What’s violent, he said, is the displacement of people as a result of unchecked real estate development and the Amazon deal. “To me that’s unforgivable.”
QAGP, Forest says, is working with a lawyer to try to get Van Bramer to unblock them. “If he doesn’t comply, then we sue.”
Van Bramer, however, refuses to budge: “We will never have any interaction with them.”
So does QAGP have a case? Is this a violation of their First Amendment rights?
“This is an unsettled area of the law,” said Lata Nott, Executive Director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute. “When a government official makes something a public forum, the rule is that you can’t discriminate based on viewpoint.”
The Knight Foundation brought a suit against President Trump for this exact reason. A federal judge ruled that it is unconstitutional for the president to block his critics on social media, and in June the White House unblocked seven Twitter users who had sued the President.
But threats, which is what Van Bramer alleges, are not points of view and don’t constitute criticism in the traditional sense. “That would be content-neutral,” said Nott.
Nott urges caution. “If you as an elected official are going to use social media, you just have to remember that it’s a town hall.”
Update 11/29: In a statement, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said, "I know Council Member Van Bramer wants to hear different viewpoints from all his constituents. However, no elected official - and no one, rather - should be threatened."