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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.”

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.”

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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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Sewell implores Alabamians “to speak out and demand change without violence”

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama U.S. Rep.Terri Sewell said that her heart aches for George Floyd and that anger should be directed not to violence but to action.

“The heroes of the Civil Rights Movement showed us it is possible to change history without damaging property and torching businesses that our community members depend on, so I implore all Alabamians to speak out and demand change without violence,” Sewell said. “We cannot let violence distract from the legitimate anger and frustration that we must channel toward action. I pray for both peace and justice.”

Sewell posted a video message Monday in response to protests across the country, which have at some points, turned violent and chaotic. On Sunday, several reporters were attacked in Birmingham, and some businesses were vandalized.

The representative’s video message comes after Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed also called peaceful demonstration. Birmingham implemented a curfew in response to the riotous demonstrations Sunday evening, but the city also removed a Confederate monument from Linn Park.

“To all those who feel marginalized because of the color of your skin: I see you and I hear you,” Sewell said. “Your pain and hopelessness is legitimate — since the founding of our nation, our criminal justice system has failed our black and brown communities. My heart aches for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the countless others whose senseless deaths have not made the national news cycle.”

Sewell represents Alabama’s 7th Congressional District and is the only black member of Alabama’s congressional delegation.

“As a daughter of Selma, I myself have struggled to reconcile with the moment in which we continue to find ourselves, over and over,” Sewell said in the video statement. “The Foot Soldiers who came before us fought to create a better future, but every day we are reminded that that fight is far from over. They sacrificed their lives in pursuit of an America that lives up to its ideals – an America that we have not yet reached more than 55 years later.”

Sewell said the racism that causes pain can be seen plainly in police brutality and in the staggering health disparities black communities have endured before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“It can be seen in thinly-veiled attempts to put African Americans in our place, holding on to and idolizing a time when our bodies were not our own,” she said. “And it can be seen in the state-sanctioned holidays and monuments that honor the leaders of the Confederacy, including today, ‘Jefferson Davis Day.’”

Sewell said she also knows that the vast majority of Americans across the country and in Birmingham are peacefully protesting for social justice.

“I wish I had all the answers and I could give us all the solutions we need,” Sewell concluded. “For now, I promise that I will work tirelessly to do absolutely everything within my power to bring peace and justice to our communities.”

“My Administration is fully committed that for George and his family, justice will be served,” President Donald Trump said on Monday. “He will not have died in vain. But we cannot allow the righteous cries of peaceful protesters to be drowned out by an angry mob.”

Floyd was killed while being arrested by the Minneapolis Police Department on suspicion of counterfeiting. The police officer who killed Floyd has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Activists say more widespread reform of policing and the criminal justice system needs to happen, and the other officers involved in Floyd’s homicide should also be charged.

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ACLU of Alabama backs right to protest

Eddie Burkhalter

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The ACLU of Alabama in a statement Tuesday expressed support for the Constitutionally protected right to protest and called for an end to racist policing. 

“We support protesters in Alabama and across the nation who are expressing their grief at the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all of the many Black men, women, and children who have been killed at the hands of police,” the statement reads. “We stand with those who are demanding justice from a system that has both historically abused and too often abuses Black communities to this day. Black people should not live in fear of being shot and killed by the police.

The ACLU said these times of unrest compel us to examine what will make our communities safer and more equitable.

“Police, sheriffs, and other government officials have discretion in how they use their time and resources,” the organization said in their statement. “Now is the time to question how they use that discretion around the role that law enforcement possesses in our communities, especially given the disproportionate harm inflicted upon communities of color, particularly Black communities, caused by enhanced militarization of law enforcement in this country. We cannot effectively address police violence without completely reimagining the role of police.  We must significantly reduce the responsibilities and presence of police in the everyday lives of people in heavily policed communities. We will not rest until there is an end to racist policing.”

“The ACLU’s commitment to ending racist and violent policing goes back decades, from confronting the police violence that fueled protests in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark in the 1960s, through Ferguson. Sadly, those efforts  have not worked. We must do more.

“Rather than spend taxpayer dollars on enforcing restrictions on the constitutionally protected right to protests, police and government officials should focus on seeking justice and holding themselves accountable to the people they are supposed to protect and serve.”

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin on Monday declared a state of emergency and enacted a city-wide curfew after a peaceful protest Sunday turned violent early Monday morning. 

Protests across Alabama on Monday were peaceful, with few arrests reported, according to news accounts.

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Alabama leaders remember Auburn head football Coach Pat Dye

Brandon Moseley

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via Madison Ogletree / The Auburn Plainsman

On Monday, former Auburn football head Coach and Athletic Director Pat Dye died from kidney and liver failure. He had recently tested positive for COVID-19 as well. He was age 80. Many Alabama leaders commented fondly on the legendary Auburn football Coach from 1981 to 1992.

Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-Haleyville) said in a statement, “If there was a college football version of Mount Rushmore, Pat Dye could be there among the greats. Not only did he bring Auburn football back into prominence by winning games, SEC Championships, and what probably should have been a 1983 National Championship, he was a wonderful molder of young men. While he will long be remembered for the games he won and the contributions he made to the great Auburn-Alabama rivalry, there are hundreds of people who were touched by him who will carry on his legacy for decades to come.”

U.S. Senate candidate former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville said, “Today is a sad day for the Auburn community with the loss of Coach Pat Dye. Coach Dye was a true Auburn man and believed in the value of hard work and “a sound mind, in a sound body and a spirit that is not afraid, and in clean sports that develop these qualities.” He helped to instill these Auburn principles in players and fans alike. He was one of the coaching greats of the game, and many including myself learned invaluable lessons from watching him. My thoughts and prayers are with his family for peace and comfort during this time.”

U.S. Senate candidate former Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “The state of Alabama has lost one of its legendary coaches in Pat Dye. The field at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn is named for him. He won four SEC championships at Auburn University, and he coached my choice for the world’s greatest athlete, Bo Jackson, and others like Tracy Rocker, the tremendous Outland Award winner. Coach Dye’s teams were famous for their toughness and fighting spirit and for never quitting. He brought the Iron Bowl to Auburn and won an upset victory in that historic first game at Auburn in 1989. Pat Dye never lost his country roots or his common touch. My condolences to Coach Dye’s family, and to the entire Auburn family.”

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) said, “I am saddened to hear of the passing of Coach Pat Dye — a great man, coach and member of the Auburn family. Not only was he a phenomenal football coach, but an even better person. For years, I have known Pat personally and have always valued his friendship and colorful commentary. He had great takes on both football and life. Coach Dye truly embodied the Auburn spirit. He will be missed not only by the Auburn family, but the entire state of Alabama. War Eagle, Coach. Your life and legacy lives on.”

Former State Rep. Perry O. Hooper Jr (R-Montgomery) said, “We lost a great Coach and a Great American today!Coach Pat Dye passed away this morning.”

U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-Alabama) said, “Coach Dye was larger than life-a true legend. Not only did he win countless Auburn football games at the helm of championship teams, but more importantly he won the hearts of so many in Alabama and beyond. He truly was a man of great character and my heart is heavy hearing the news of his recent passing. Louise and I will be keeping his loved ones in our prayers.”

U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (R-Montrose) said, “‪Coach Dye was always so friendly, encouraging, and just a true joy to be around. Rebecca and I join so many others in mourning his passing and remembering a life most certainly well lived.”

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Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan said, “Moments I’ll always remember and be grateful for- celebrating my birthday with an Auburn man and legend. Wings up Coach as he walks humbly with God. “I believe in my Country, because it is a land of freedom and because it is my own home, and that I can best serve that country by doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with my God.”-Auburn creed.”

“I was saddened to hear about Coach Dye’s passing this morning,” said Second Congressional District candidate Barry Moore. “Everyone in Alabama knew him, and those who knew him well knew what a fine person he was.”

Auburn Athletics Director Allen Greene said, “For four decades, Coach Dye showed all of us what it looks like to be an Auburn person. His coaching exploits are well known, securing his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. His skills as an administrator were equally formidable, resulting most notably in bringing the Iron Bowl to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Just like his football teams, Pat Dye the athletic director was tenacious, never backing down from a fight when he believed Auburn’s good name and best interests demanded it. Thanks to his tenacity, I’ll always treasure my first home Iron Bowl, celebrating victory on the field that bears his name.”

Current Auburn Head Football Coach Gus Malzahn said, “Coach Dye was much more than a hall of fame coach and administrator at Auburn. He was an Auburn leader and visionary. He not only returned the football program back to national prominence during his tenure, but was a key figure in bringing the Iron Bowl to Auburn and made an impact on the university and in the community. He embodied what Auburn is about: hard work, toughness and a blue collar mentality. Coach Dye’s impact on Auburn is endless and will stand the test of time. “

Dye also coached for six seasons at East Carolina University and one season with the University of Wyoming. Dye played football at the University of Georgia and was an assistant football coach under legendary University of Alabama head football Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Dye’s overall record as a head coach was 163-62-5. He was 99-39-4 at Auburn where he is the third winningest coach in the history of the program.

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Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed asks public to stay home for “next few nights” amid protests

Eddie Burkhalter

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Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed at a Monday afternoon press conference asked the public to stay at home for the next few nights, if they can. 

Reed’s words came after peaceful protests in Birmingham turned into a riot early Monday morning. Numerous businesses were burned, and two reporters were attacked. Protests were likely to begin Monday evening, according to accounts on social media. 

“I want you to know that I share your outrage over the killing of George Floyd. I share your anger about the callus action that ended his life,” Reed said. 

But Reed said “we must not further inflict damage upon ourselves and our community in a short-sighted effort to express our understandable frustration and anger.” 

Reed asked that those who can do so “stay at home for the next few nights.” 

“Talk with your family. Talk with your friends. Talk with others about what we can do together for the betterment of each other,” Reed said. 

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin earlier on Monday declared a state of emergency and a city-wide curfew that begins today. 

Moments before Reed spoke, President Donald Trump gave a speech at the White House and said he is an ally of all peaceful protestors and “your president of law and order.” 

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“But in recent days our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, antifa and others,” Trump said. 

Trump said he was mobilizing the U.S. military to stop the rioting, and that he strongly recommended to governors that they “deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets.” 

If governors don’t get rioting under control, Trump said “I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” 

Gov. Kay Ivey earlier on Monday announced that she authorized the Alabama National Guard to activate as many as 1,000 guardsmen, but said there was no immediate need to deploy them. Woodfin said in a separate press conference Monday that there was no immediate need for assistance from the Alabama National Guard.

Just as Trump began speaking at the White House, police fired tear gas and advanced on a group of peaceful protestors at Lafeyette Park near the White House, according to video coverage by several news outlets. 

After his speech, Trump left the White House on foot and traveled under heavy security to Lafeyette Park, where he held up a Bible outside St. John’s Church alongside White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany while photographers clicked away.

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