A federal court has ordered Thornton City Council member Jan Kulmann to unblock two Coloradans from her Facebook page and “refrain from blocking/banning any individuals” as part of an agreement in a lawsuit while the case is pending.
Kulmann’s attorney, Stan Garnett, said the councilwoman has complied with the order. He added the dispute was not over and called the lawsuit a “complete publicity stunt.”
Last week, two anti-fracking activists filed suit against the City of Thornton and Kulmann, complaining she banned them from commenting on her official Facebook page after they spoke out against her position on a proposed ballot measure to limit oil-and-gas drilling in Colorado.
Clifton Willmeng, a nurse who lives in Lafayette, and Edward Asher, a Marine Corps reservist who lives in Thornton, claimed Kulmann silenced them because of their views. Willmeng, an anti-fracking activist who helped found the group East Boulder County United, is running for a seat on the Boulder County Commission.
Kulmann, who serves as Thornton’s mayor pro tem, has worked in the oil and gas industry and opposes this year’s Proposition 112 ballot measure that would require drill rigs be 2,500 feet from homes and vulnerable structures.
Kulmann didn’t respond to a voice message or email, but the website Energy In Depth wrote that she hides comments on her Facebook page that she finds offensive, and she found Willmeng’s and Asher’s comments offensive. “They were personal attacks against me and others that work in the industry, instead of focusing on the issue,” the site quotes her saying. “I actually asked a couple of times to end the conversation and when that was ignored, I blocked the person. The first gentleman, it wasn’t until the comments got derogatory, then I blocked him.”
The plaintiffs’ attorneys, Andy McNulty and Tania Valdez of the Killmer, Lane & Newman firm in Denver, say the lawsuit is about free speech. (The same firm currently represents Colorado Independent editor Susan Greene who Denver police handcuffed after she took photos of them on a sidewalk.)
McNulty said when the councilwoman posted on her page that she was against the Proposition 112 ballot measure, she deleted comments and banned users from her page who expressed views different than her own.
As part of the suit, McNulty and Valdez asked a judge to tell Kulmann to lift the ban on their clients and allow them to post comments on her Facebook page, which the judge did as part of an agreement between the parties to the lawsuit. They say the judge’s order extends to anyone and will “remain in effect through election day and allow Mr. Willmeng and Mr. Asher, and everyone else, to fully exercise their First Amendment rights.”
McNulty said everything that was previously posted has now reappeared on the councilwoman’s Facebook page and readers could be the judge as to whether what his clients posted is consistent with what Kulmann said.
City of Thornton spokesman Todd Barnes said the city has no control over Kulmann’s Facebook page, and, “We support her decision to unblock people from her Facebook page.”
The lawsuit is the latest skirmish over what has become perhaps the most contentious question on this year’s ballots, which have already been mailed to voters.
The measure pits those who want to limit fracking against a well-financed oil-and-gas industry that is spending big to defeat it. Those who helped gather enough signatures earlier this year to put the question before voters have accused opponents of harassment and even payoffs in order to keep them from succeeding.
Kulmann’s attorney, Garnett, said his client’s Facebook page is a campaign page and the legal issues are far from resolved.
“We need to know where the guidelines are and we’ll fight hard to represent Jan on this,” he said. Asked if the case could wind up as a test over free speech, politicians and social media, Garnett said he didn’t know. “I suppose it could be,” he said. “On the other hand, there may be other cases coming along in the meantime that resolve all these issues.”
McNulty said courts have ruled if public officials allow people to comment on their social media pages they can’t delete comments or ban them if they disagree with their views. A federal judge in May ruled that President Donald Trump could not block Twitter users because doing so violates the First Amendment.
How politicians deal with people on social media has come up before in Colorado. Around this time last year, Republican Sen. Ray Scott of Grand Junction caught heat when Facebook users accused him of blocking them.
But McNulty said such a case has not yet been litigated in Colorado.