Up until last week, most people could read Surrey councillor Laurie Guerra’s tweets.
Now, only 176 followers are privy to the thoughts of a councillor in B.C.’s second-largest city.
Guerra has blocked a number of her critics on Twitter and Facebook and, in an unusual move, made her Twitter account private.
The clampdown came after a news report that Guerra had attended a post-election victory party organized by opponents of SOGI — sexual orientation and gender identity — a provincial directive that promotes inclusivity in public schools.
Guerra faced backlash online from parents who felt her anti-SOGI stance didn’t align with her role as a board member for the Autism Society of B.C., which advocates for inclusivity.
Now, people are calling out the councillor for concealing her online presence.
<a href=”https://twitter.com/guerra_laurie?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@guerra_laurie</a> I believe I have the right to this dialogue. Even more concerned now that I have been blocked from commenting on your page & my post deleted. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/inclusion?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#inclusion</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/diversity?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#diversity</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/humanrights?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#humanrights</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/LGBTQ2?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#LGBTQ2</a> <a href=”https://t.co/mDFldAnPq5″>pic.twitter.com/mDFldAnPq5</a>
im sure <a href=”https://twitter.com/guerra_laurie?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@guerra_laurie</a> CANNOT have her twitter private. she is a elected official. she MUST answer to the public. <a href=”https://twitter.com/CityofSurrey?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@CityofSurrey</a>
The issue underscores a nagging problem for elected officials: should they be allowed to block members of the public?
“If you’re a public person and you are saying statements about public issues, people have a right to see that,” said Surrey resident Jodi Murphy, who follows local politicians on Twitter.
It also points to the volatility of social media and balancing the need for public figures to shield themselves from abuse.
Murphy acknowledged that politicians are entitled to privacy. But any account that denotes an official’s public role — in this instance, Guerra’s Twitter account identifies her as a Surrey city councillor — should be subject to greater oversight, Murphy said.
No case law on the issue
Guerra did not respond to requests for comment. But the City of Surrey said Guerra’s Twitter is a personal account and that it doesn’t have jurisdiction over personal social media accounts.
Vancouver and Burnaby also told CBC News they don’t have social media policies for elected officials.
Municipal governments should reconsider that, said Micheal Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
Vonn pointed to a legal battle last month, where Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson was sued by three residents who accused him of violating their charter rights by blocking them on Twitter.
Watson argued his Twitter was a personal account. But in the face of legal battle, Watson conceded that his account was public and settled out of court. He unblocked the users and muted them instead.
While there remains no case law on the issue, the settlement is a “temperature taking” for future decisions, Vonn said.
“People are alive to this being an issue.”
Politicians face ‘brutal tweets’
Blocking users can help stem online abuse and trolling, especially for female politicians.
Women are three times more likely than men to receive sexist comments online, according to a study this year that compared how male and female politicians are treated on social media.
Three-term Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer, who has more than 16,000 followers on Twitter, was vocal about online abuse during her time in office.
My lines for blocking/unfriending: anything that would be construed as hate speech under the Charter (usually not directed at me but they use my reach to amplify their hate), lying, violence or threats of, weaponized swearing. I usually send a polite DM/FBM 1st but… /1
If they don’t stop, then I block. Generally I would say don’t feed the trolls/bots/rent-a-crowd but the challenge is (a) silence is acquiescence and (b) sometimes someone just needs to take a bully on. Harder to define clear rules on that category but I do TG for mute /2
“I had some pretty brutal tweets with words I don’t even feel comfortable typing,” Reimer said in an email.
“We need to be so much better collectively at calling out trolls for what they are and that includes not allowing them to hijack the communications tools of their intended victims.”
More clarity on the issue could soon be found south of the border.
Last May, a court ruled that U.S. President Donald Trump violated the constitutional rights of Twitter users by blocking them. His administration is appealing that decision.