By Olivia Krauth
Originally published Aug. 13, 2017
In June, the American-Statesman sent public records requests to Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, among other Austin- and Texas-based politicians, asking for lists of whom they block from following their public, taxpayer-funded Twitter accounts.
The governor, citing public safety concerns, said, no. His fear: Russian hackers.
Lawyers for each office said they are asking Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to rule that the information is exempt from required public disclosure. Both argue that divulging the names of the blocked accounts constitute “a computer network vulnerability report.”
Abbott and Patrick cited a May Time magazine article that discusses Russian hackers who used tailored Twitter messages to take over a computer upon clicking a link in the tweet, a type of phishing attack. Releasing the lists of blocked accounts, they argue, would allow hackers to see which methods were flagged as security threats and which were not.
The Texas Public Information Act requires government bodies to request an attorney general opinion to withhold information and to notify the person who requested the information of their intent to do so. The law gives Paxton 45 business days to issue a decision; the clock started ticking on July 3. Paxton can also request a 10-day extension.
In a phone call, Abbott’s general counsel Jessica Vu said the governor would still seek to deny the records release even if the Statesman submitted a revised request for only Twitter handles and names.
Not all politicians fear hackers, though. City of Austin public information officials responded to the Statesman’s request the next business day, saying Austin Mayor Steve Adler doesn’t block anyone on Twitter.
In response to a separate request, Adler’s office also released its Twitter direct messages since January 2015.
The Statesman’s initial request was inspired by news that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin blocks more than 500 people on Twitter, despite often citing his social media as the only reliable news source on his office.
Kentucky news outlets, including Louisville’s The Courier-Journal and the national nonprofit ProPublica, obtained the names and Twitter handles of people Bevin blocked via open records requests.
According to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, Bevin’s office said users are blocked due to “posting obscene and abusive language or images, or repeated off-topic comments and spam,” while some of those blocked said it was because they sent tweets critiquing the governor.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky filed a lawsuit on behalf of two of the blocked Twitter users on July 31 for blocking their political speech.
“I may not have voted for Gov. Bevin, but I’m one of his constituents. He shouldn’t be permanently dismissing my views and concerns with a click,” Mary Hargis, one of the people blocked by Bevin and represented by the ACLU, told the Courier-Journal.
Nationally, Twitter users blocked by President Donald Trump are also lawyering up. The Knight First Amendment Institute sued Trump on July 11. The institute argues social media is the newest public forum and that it is unconstitutional to block people from public discourse due to conflicting opinions.
Politicians blocking people on Twitter is nothing new. In 2015, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which like the Statesman is owned by Cox Media Group, wrote about a list of people blocked by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. The names came from journalists discussing it on Twitter, not from a public records request.
Most of those Reed blocked were members of the Atlanta press corps who had written unfavorably about the mayor or his policies, but several quoted said they weren’t sure why exactly they got blocked.
In their appeal to deny the Statesman’s request for a list blocked followers, Abbott and Patrick don’t indicate whether all of those they have blocked are barred because they posed cybersecurity threats.