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ACLU sues John Merrill for blocking followers on Twitter

Chip Brownlee

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Secretary of State John Merrill is facing a lawsuit over his blocking of individuals on Twitter.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued Merrill Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2018, on behalf of three Alabama citizens who say they were blocked on Merrill’s Twitter. They say an elected official shouldn’t be allowed to block constituents on Twitter because it’s a violation of their First Amendment rights under the Constitution.

“It is upsetting to me that the Secretary of State, who primarily uses his Twitter account to disseminate information on issues related to his office, has also weaponized that account by blocking those with whom he disagrees politically,” said Kimberly Fasking, a plaintiff in the case. “It is not the Secretary of State’s job to communicate only with those who agree with him, but with all of the people of the State of Alabama. I am disappointed that I no longer have ready access to information from the Secretary of State’s office in a way that allows me to engage meaningfully on topics that I find incredibly important.”

Fasking, along with the other plaintiffs in the case, are all residents and registered voters in Alabama, according to the initial court filing and the ACLU.

Fasking is a law student at the University of Alabama and says she was blocked after asking about crossover voting, while Heather Melvin Boothe, a second plaintiff, was blocked for stating “Good point! Ballot has major typo.”

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The third plaintiff, Herbert Hicks, a farmer and educator, was blocked after asking Merrill about a speaking engagement.

Merill quickly responded to the lawsuit Tuesday in a statement.

“The lawsuit filed today by the ACLU of Alabama is an attempted political hack job,” Merrill said. “Members of this liberal group are attempting to create an issue concerning lack of access to public officials that simply does not exist. As every member of the media and general public who interacts with this office knows, the most important thing for an elected official to do is to remain accessible to the people of this state. That is why I always make my cell number — 334.328.2787 — available to all Alabamians.”

Merrill does regularly release his phone number and responds inquiries.

The ACLU says Merrill’s Twitter account, @JohnHMerrill, is used “regularly to discuss Alabama election law, inform about his duties as Alabama Secretary of State, remind the public about upcoming elections, and generally engage with the citizens of Alabama.”

They argue that because of the way he uses this account, even if it’s personal, it has become an important source of news and information regarding Alabama elections and election law.

Merrill said in his statement that his account’s personal nature excludes him from a recent federal court ruling that held President Donald Trump’s blocking of followers on Twitter violated the First Amendment.

“Further, the account in question — @JohnHMerrill — is exclusively my account, while the account @alasecofstate is the state’s public account, and this account has never blocked anyone from viewing any of the posts on its page,” Merrill said. “The @JohnHMerrill account has remained a personal account since its creation, in October 2009.”

The lawsuit resulting in a federal ruling against Trump was filed by Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute and seven of his former followers whom Trump blocked on Twitter.

After the federal court ruling regarding Trump’s account, Merrill told the Montgomery Advertiser that he would continue to block followers who were only interested in promoting their public agendas.

He reiterated that resolve in his statement Tuesday.

“When people use a platform for public debate as a way to promote their agenda, regardless of the presentation of any factual information, I believe it is my responsibility to designate attempts to misinform the public as false,” Merrill said. “And, when users continue to publish those instances, or when they make hurtful statements about me or my family, I try to reduce the exposure to avoid misinforming members of the public.”

The lawsuit seeks to bar Merrill from blocking plaintiffs and others based upon whether he agrees or disagrees with their viewpoints, the ACLU’s complaint states. The case was filed in the Middle District of Alabama U.S. District Court on Tuesday.

Merrill said the lawsuit and its assertions don’t change the fact that he is accessible to the public.

“I am recognized as one of the most accessible and personally available elected officials in the history of the state of Alabama, which is why I visit all 67 counties each year,” Merrill said. “It is my desire to continue to be recognized in that way as long as I have the privilege to continue to serve in public office.”

ACLU of Alabama attorney Brock Boone said Merrill as a government official does not get to pick and choose who receives information on Twitter just like he can’t kick out his constituents for their beliefs at a town hall.

“This is a violation of the First Amendment,” Boone said. “It is worrisome that the individual in charge of free and fair elections chooses to discriminate against individuals on social media. As the Secretary of State, Merrill should be using his platform to inform the public, not censure them.”

 

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Economy

Jones encourages rural Alabama entities to apply for USDA broadband infrastructure grants

Brandon Moseley

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The USDA is offering up to $600 million in loans and grants to build broadband infrastructure in Rural America and on Friday U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-Alabama) urged rural Alabama entities to apply for the money.

Senator Jones released a statement encouraging eligible rural Alabama entities to apply for the up to $600 million in loans and grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The money is being provided by Congress to help expand the rural broadband infrastructure. Telecommunication companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers, and municipalities may apply for funding through USDA’s new ReConnect Program to connect rural areas that currently have insufficient broadband service. This broadband pilot program is covered through funds secured in the fiscal year 2018 budget as designated by Congress. USDA Rural Development is the primary agency delivering the program, with assistance from other federal partners.

“Today, more than ever, high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity,” said Senator Jones. “Students rely on connectivity for their education, hospitals and health care providers use telehealth capabilities to reach rural communities, and small businesses need the internet to thrive. It provides economic opportunity, strengthens our communities and connects our workforce throughout Alabama and the nation. This USDA funding is a great opportunity to close the broadband gaps that exist in Alabama and I encourage any eligible entity in the state to apply.”

The USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants (applications due to USDA by April 29, 2019), as well as $200 million for loan and grant combinations (applications due May 29, 2019), and $200 million for low-interest loans (applications due by June 28, 2019).

To help customers with the application process, USDA is holding a series of online webinars and regional in-person workshops. The full list of upcoming public webinars and workshops can be found at the ReConnect Program’s resource portal:

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https://reconnect.usda.gov/s/

The Farm Bill, which passed last week, included two broadband provisions sponsored by Senator Jones that provided an additional $400 million in federal funding for broadband service in rural communities across America.

The lack of a broadband infrastructure in most Alabama counties has become a major concern of elected leaders and economic development professionals.
Governor Kay Ivey (R), Senator Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville), and Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-Haleyville) have also worked on increasing rural broadband access in the last year.

Sen. Doug Jones was elected to the U.S. Senate in a special election last year.

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Featured Columnists

Opinion | Trump’s con game is almost over

Josh Moon

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It’s all true.

All of the rumors. All of the speculation. All of the oh-my-God-have-you-heard-about whispers.

All of it is true.

All of the things that Donald Trump and his administration and family have been accused of doing … they actually did them. All of them.

Even the really dumb ones.

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Even the really awful ones.

They did it all.

Oh, listen, I know that the typical Alabama conservative voter has zero idea what I’m talking about right now, because they have so fully wrapped themselves in the protective bubble of conservative opinion sources that they’re still talking about the Clinton Foundation. But I don’t care.

Because this isn’t speculation. Or partisan hopefulness. Or ignorant accusations.

This is under oath.

And right now, after the last two weeks, here’s what people under oath, facing the penalty of perjury and providing supporting evidence and documentation, have said about the conman you people elected president: He has lied repeatedly. He has directed illegal payments. He has sought to cover up affairs. He has bought off a tabloid. At least 14 members of senior campaign staff were in contact with Russians. And Trump — or “Individual 1,” as he’s known in court filings these days — was involved in it all.

Trump’s personal attorney has now been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for a crime personally directed by the president.

That makes five — FIVE! — of Trump’s top aides or attorneys who have struck deals with Robert Mueller and are now working with the broad investigation into possible (certain) Russian interference and collusion.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Trump’s personal businesses are also under federal investigation. His campaign staff’s use of funds is now under federal investigation. And most of his immediate family is under investigation.

And absolutely none of this should be a surprise to anyone.

Because all of you should have known well before this clown was elected president that he is nothing more than a two-bit conman with an ego large enough to fill a stadium and less shame than a 90-year-old stripper.

You should know because we told you. We, the media. The actual media.

We wrote story after story on this crook and his shady business dealings — how he rarely paid his bills, how he left working men holding the bill, how he created a scam college to bilk poor people out of money, how he skirted laws and tax codes constantly and how he gamed the system over and over again to stay wealthy using taxpayer money.

All of it was right there for anyone to read.

But a good portion of this country didn’t care. They were too caught up in this buffoon making jokes and calling people names and kicking people out of rallies and saying offensive things. He catered to white men and claimed he could fix any problem just by saying he could fix any problem.

And they bought it. Just like the conman planned. You didn’t even make this dude show you his tax returns!

And the white, working-class folks are still buying it. Which would make sense if he had done even one thing to help them.

But he hasn’t.

His economic policies have been a disaster, especially for the people of Alabama. And his tough talk has produced zilch in the way of foreign respect, better trade deals, lower prices for consumers or more American jobs. In fact, we’ve lost respect, have worse deals and higher prices and companies are still moving American jobs to other countries.

And yet, the supporters remain.

I don’t understand it. But you know what? I don’t have to understand it for much longer.

The walls are quickly closing around the conman president. Soon, the rest of Mueller’s investigation will drop, and the indictments will roll out. The full breadth of the Trump administration’s illegal acts will be laid out for Congress to see. Given what we already know from the few filings that have been made public, this will not go well for Trump and his closest associates.

I do not expect the Trump supporters to ever admit they were wrong.

But if there is justice in this world, and if the indictments break just right, those supporters will have to deal — at least for a brief period — with the two words that could make this whole thing almost worth it.

President Pelosi.

 

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Aerospace and Defense

Jones appointed to powerful Senate Armed Services Committee

Chip Brownlee

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After a brief stint with no representation on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, Alabama is back in the mix.

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones has been appointed to the influential committee tasked with overseeing the nation’s armed forces, national security and military research and development. Jones will assume his position on the committee when the 116th Congress convenes in January.

Alabama is home to five military bases, which employ 8,500 active-duty service members and more than 23,000 civilians. With Jones’ appointment, Alabama will regain some representation for the aerospace industry in Huntsville and the shipbuilding industry in Mobile, both of which have deep ties to the military.

In 2017, the Department of Defense spent $7.7 billion on contracts in Alabama. Alabama hasn’t had any representation on the committee since Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions left the Senate to become attorney general and his temporary replacement, Luther Strange, lost the Republican primary to Roy Moore.

More than 375,000 veterans, including 65,000 retirees, live in Alabama.

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“Alabama and its citizens have long played a significant role in our national defense, from building or maintaining ships and other vehicles to leading cutting-edge research and development to volunteering to serve in our armed forces,” Jones said. “It is vital that we have a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee, a role that I am honored to be able to fill in the next Congress.”

Jones said he is committed to serving as Alabama’s advocate for a strong national defense, which also means a strong and prosperous economy in our state.

“I look forward to working with Chairman Inhofe and Ranking Member Reed to advocate for our service members and their families, and for a robust national defense posture that protects our interests at home and abroad,” Jones said.

Democrats had to fill three seats on the committee after losing three of the senior Democrats who were serving there. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida; Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri; and Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, all lost their re-election to the Senate, leaving a gaping hole for the Democrats. Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, is the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee.

“Senator Jones is a tremendous advocate for Alabama and a true champion for our service members and their families,” Reed said. “I am pleased to welcome him to the committee and know he’ll continue working on a bipartisan basis to help keep America strong militarily and economically.”

Jones will remain on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where his office says he will continue to advocate for improved access to health care and quality educational opportunities for Alabamians.

Jones will also continue to serve on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and the Senate Special Committee on Aging. He will no longer serve on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

 

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National

Sewell calls Trump’s threat to shutdown the government over border wall “disgraceful”

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Selma, said that President Donald J. Trump’s threat to shut down the government if his border wall project is not funded “disgraceful.”

The President made the comments in a televised White House meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California.

“We need funding for teacher pay, health care, for job skills training and access to higher ed,” Rep. Sewell said on social media. “We need funding for roads, bridges, water and wastewater systems. Shutting down the government over funding for a wall that the public doesn’t want is disgraceful. Plain and simple.”

Congress is currently considering the delayed 2019 Homeland Security budget. A key sticking point is a wall on the southern border that Trump promised in the 2016 election. Pres. Trump is demanding that the budget include a $5 billion appropriation for beginning construction of his wall along the approximately 1,954 miles of the U.S./Mexico border. The Democrats have offered just $1.3 billion for general border security. While Republicans have a one-seat majority in the Senate and a majority in the House, passing a budget is going to require bipartisan support, given Senate rules.

Leader Pelosi told the President, “You can’t win,” on the border wall issue and Senator Schumer warned that the President would be held responsible if there was a shutdown.

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An angry President Trump replied: “I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not gonna blame you for it. The last time you shut it down it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down. And I’m gonna shut it down for border security.”

Leader Pelosi replied, “Thank you for the opportunity to meet with you so that we can work together in a bipartisan way to meet the needs of the American people. I think the American people recognize that we must keep government open — that a shutdown is not worth anything. And that you should not have a Trump shutdown.”

“A what, did you say?” Pres. Trump said.

“Trump shutdown,” Pelosi responded. “You have the White House. You have the Senate. You have the House of Representatives. You have the votes. You should pass it.”

“No, we don’t have the votes, Nancy,” Pres. Trump replied. “Because in the Senate we need 60 votes.

“No, but in the House,” Rep. Pelosi said. “You can bring it up right now.”

After the meeting, Schumer and Pelosi told reporters outside the White House that the shutdown will be Mr. Trump’s responsibility, and Trump’s alone.

“The President has the White House, he has the Senate, he has the House of Representatives, all in Republican control,” Pelosi said. “He has the power to keep government open. Instead, he has admitted in this meeting that he will take responsibility, the Trump shutdown is something that can be avoided. The American people do not need at the time of economic uncertainty, people losing jobs, the market in the mood and the rest, the Trump shutdown is luxury that the American people cannot afford.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement after the meeting, “President Trump had a constructive dialogue with Democrat Leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. The President and the Democrat Leaders agreed to support the passage of historic criminal justice reform, and discussed significant progress with the farm bill. Major disagreement remains on the issue of border security and transparency. Walls work – where walls have been built, illegal crossings have dropped substantially. President Trump made clear that any government funding measure must include responsible border security, including a wall, to protect the American people from drugs, crime, terrorism, public health threats, and the severe straining of the social safety net.”

A shutdown does not necessarily benefit the President’s position. There is only expected to be a week left in this lame-duck Congress. When Congress returns from the Christmas break, Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) will be out as the Speaker of the House and instead, Pelosi will be Speaker because Democrats picked up 40 Republican seats and will have the majority of the House for the first time since 2010. Passing a budget through a Democratic-controlled House could be more difficult for the President.

Sewell represents Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District and is a member of the House Democratic leadership. Sewell is presently the ranking member on the Subcommittee on the Department of Defense Intelligence and Overhead Architecture so could chair that important subcommittee when the Democrats take over in January.

Original reporting by Fox News and CBS News contributed to this report.

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ACLU sues John Merrill for blocking followers on Twitter

by Chip Brownlee Read Time: 4 min
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