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ACLU tells Pittsburgh councilwoman to unblock residents on Facebook or else

Bob Bauder
| Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, 5:42 p.m.
Pittsburgh Councilwoman Darlene Harris got another warning from the American Civil Liberties Union this week after a critical comment allegedly disappeared from the “official” Facebook profile established as an open forum for constituents, but Harris said she never deleted anything.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Pittsburgh Councilwoman Darlene Harris got another warning from the American Civil Liberties Union this week after a critical comment allegedly disappeared from the “official” Facebook profile established as an open forum for constituents, but Harris said she never deleted anything.

The Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to sue Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Darlene Harris for blocking constituents who have posted critical comments on her official city Facebook page.

ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak said Harris essentially censored criticism in violation of the First Amendment.

“Public officials are increasingly using social media for constituent services and communications, which is a positive thing and a great way to communicate with the voters,” Walczak said. “If you do that you're subject to First Amendment rules, and the most important thing is you can't censor your critics.”

Harris of Spring Hill declined comment.

Walczak wrote Harris a letter Tuesday asking her to unblock four North Side residents whom she previously blocked from accessing her Facebook page. The letter gives Harris until Dec. 4 to respond.

“If we do not receive a response and our clients remain blocked from your Facebook page by the deadline, we will interpret your silence as a rejection of this request and will take appropriate steps to protect our clients' constitutional rights,” he wrote.

Walczak said that includes filing a lawsuit.

Harris blocked three North Side residents — Chris MacTaggart, Chris Rapier and Lora Rigatti — in October after they posted comments about her driving a vehicle along an access road in Allegheny Commons Park, according to Walczak's letter. She blocked a fourth — Jeff Suzik — after he said Harris was “uninterested in development or change.”

Harris previously said she was checking out reports of drug use in the park. She said she found drug paraphernalia, including needles, near restrooms and an elementary school. She noted that some of the Facebook posters used vulgar language.

“I was out on business personally investigating complaints that I had received from my residents,” Harris wrote on Facebook. “Several people saw me and assumed the worst. Please make sure you have all the facts before jumping to conclusions!”

Rigatti, 37, of the Mexican War Streets, said she heard about Harris driving in the park and asked for an explanation.

“Can you please explain why it was necessary to drive on a pedestrian walkway for your official business?” Rigatti wrote on Oct. 6.

Harris responded by blocking her. Rigatti said Harris has posted important information on her Facebook page, including locations of fresh water during Pittsburgh's boil advisory in August. Rigatti thinks the page should be available to all constituents.

“If there's information that she's posting about water safety or the locations of water, that could affect the health of my family,” she said. “If it's her personal page and she's ... not using it for official business, yes, block whoever you want.”

MacTaggart, 36, of East Allegheny, said Harris ignores constituents who do not agree with her.

“Councilwoman Harris has a real issue of ignoring any kind of questions that people ask her about her capacity as a councilwoman,” he said. “I don't believe it's fair to just completely block constituents from a page she uses in her official capacity.”

Every member of council has an official Facebook page. Some also have personal pages.

“I actually have three pages,” said Councilman Dan Gilman of Squirrel Hill, adding that plenty of people have posted critical comments. “I've never blocked anybody from any of the three pages and I've never been tempted to.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, or @bobbauder.

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