Colorado Judge Finds Campaign Law Violation in Social Media Post

November 2, 2015

Facebook Gavel social mediaA school board election campaign in Colorado has generated a controversial interpretation of campaign laws in the context of social media.  A Colorado judge has ordered the principal of a Fort Collins high school to remove a post from his school’s Facebook page after concluding that the post violated state campaign laws.  The case raises troubling questions regarding threats to free speech in the context of social media.

The principal of Liberty Common High School in Fort Collins, Colorado learned from local media that a parent of a former Liberty Common student was running for election to the school board in another district.  That parent had reportedly worked as a substitute teacher and a nurse.  He posted an article from local media discussing the parent’s candidacy on the school’s Facebook page.

Later, the principal shared the post from the Liberty Common Facebook page through his own personal Facebook page.  In the post on his personal page, the principal reportedly indicated that the candidate was an excellent educator and leader.

The Facebook posts were seen by the campaign manager of the opposing candidate.  A lawsuit was filed on behalf of the opponent.  The claims included allegations that the post on the high school Facebook page violated Colorado campaign law by exerting excessive influence over voters.  The remedy requested was the posting of a disclaimer on the Liberty Common page indicating that the school did not support or endorse any specific school board candidate.

Liberty Common apparently argued that the post on its Facebook page was a neutral presentation of facts, consisting only of the local media article discussing the candidacy.  The school’s principal reportedly argued that he had every right to re-post the Liberty Common material and to express his personal opinion regarding the quality of the candidate on his personal social media page.

The judge in the case determined that the Liberty Common post was a violation of Colorado campaign law.  In addition, the remedy he ordered seems to exceed that requested by the plaintiff in the case.  The judge concluded that a disclaimer alone would not adequately resolve the issue of excessive influence.  Accordingly, he required that Liberty Common remove the post in question.

The decision in this case is troubling.  It seems to require action which is substantially more severe than necessary in order to resolve the campaign law issue.  It appears that the requested disclaimer should have effectively preserved the neutral environment sought by the campaign laws, while minimizing the associated interference with open expression and information sharing in the social media environment.

As disputes arising from social media and other information sharing platforms are addressed by legal authorities, every effort should be made to minimize the extent to which content is blocked or deleted.  Mandatory denial of access to social media and other shared content should be an action of last resort, taken only when no other more moderate approach is adequate.  In the Liberty Common case, it appears that the order to remove the content was neither necessary nor prudent.