On May 5th at 7PM, the Hoboken City Council voted on the first reading of an ordinance that would fine elected officials up to $500 for each person they block on their social media accounts. The argument was that by blocking constituents, the officials aren’t being transparent — and conversely, what role does the 1st Amendment play in the privacy of said officials. The ordinance was defeated by a vote of 5-4 with Council Members DeFusco, Fisher, Ramos, Giattino, and Falco voting against.
The measure was sponsored by 3rd Ward Councilman Mike Russo, 5th Ward Councilman Phil Cohen, and Councilwoman-at-Large Emily Jabbour, who released a statement to the press prior to the vote. The document cites a 2020 decision from the 8th Circuit U.S. District Court of Appeals that says public officials cannot block individuals where their social media profile “is an organ of business.”
“While we would have liked to have seen this ordinance advance to second reading so that the public could weigh in on this matter of great public interest, we are gratified that by our introducing this legislation, Councilman DeFusco has now “unblocked” many individuals he had previously prohibited from engaging on his ‘Councilman Mike DeFusco’ social media platforms, including those who recently asked legitimate questions about his Airbnb rentals and overseas travels during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. We strongly maintain that any official social media account which communicates about official city business must not unfairly censor individuals and infringe on First Amendment rights.”
A Brief History
Cohen said in the release prior to the meeting that the ordinance was put forward in response to 1st Ward Councilman Mike DeFusco blocking people on Twitter who questioned his travels while renting his home on Airbnb.
“Hoboken residents expect to communicate freely with their representatives who choose to engage the community on their social media platforms, like Twitter. I have heard from a number of Hoboken residents who have complained that they have been silenced by the First Ward Councilmember,” said Cohen. “With this Ordinance, Hoboken’s elected officials will know what is expected of them on their official Social Media accounts and the First Amendment rights of our constituents will be protected.”
Cohen took to Twitter to re-tweet and comment on the following:
“If you’re blocked, you can’t question, you can’t criticize, you can’t mock, you can’t satirize,” Cohen said. “What would America be if you couldn’t make fun of your politicians? That’s as American as apple pie.” https://t.co/aBwiojekJR
— Phil Cohen (@PhilipHCohen) May 4, 2021
DeFusco told Tap Into, “My social media is not taxpayer-funded and has nothing to do with city business, and I use it to connect with my constituents and inform them about important things happening in Hoboken. Social media can be an incredibly toxic place and I hope that my opponents can be more mindful of the importance of keeping discussions about local politics and government civil and informative in the future.”
“When we decided to step up and run for public office as City Council representatives, we signed up to hear both the good and the bad from our community. We should not block members of the public from being heard on our social media platforms,” Jabbour stated in the release.
“As elected officials, we should be embracing a diversity of opinions and respecting the very valid questions that may be raised by individuals and constituents,” said Russo.
“We need to allow full access to our residents. Blocking those opinions and limiting access runs counter to everything we should believe in as leaders in office, and I’m glad to co-sponsor this ordinance to ensure every individual in this great city can make their voices heard without restriction while providing full access to those they choose to lead.”
Hudson County View also noted Tiffanie Fisher stated that she will vote against the ordinance if it comes to that point, characterizing it as another “political stunt” by allies of Mayor Ravi Bhalla. She tweeted:
More #predatorypolitics by #teambhalla and just another backdoor way for mayor @RaviBhalla to weaponize his campaign for re-election. A huge local government overreach and I will be voting NO. #Hoboken https://t.co/VOGNDOF2lL
— Tiffanie Fisher, Councilwoman (@Tiffanie_Fisher) May 4, 2021
DeFusco stated to Hudson County View that his social media is not taxpayer-funded and that he only blocked a small handful of people who engage in abusive behavior. He continued that he has since unblocked everyone in the spirit of open communications and that he has a list of policies posted on his Facebook page and still reserves the right to delete comments that violate those terms.