Mayor Levine Gave Out His Twitter Block List in 2015 but Now Refuses to Do So

In September 2015, Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine had just one person on his Twitter block list: a user named "Asscakes," with the handle @asscakessupreme. Levine voluntarily disclosed that information in response to a public-records request by California paralegal Angela Greben filed that year, which New Times has obtained.

Yet when Miami journalist and activist Grant Stern asked for that same information in 2016, Levine denied his request. Last week, Stern sued Levine, claiming that because the mayor uses his Facebook and Twitter accounts to conduct the city's "official business," those accounts are subject to public-records laws.

The fact that Levine would so easily hand out his block list in 2015 raises an obvious question: Why put up roadblocks to that same information less than a year later?

Deputy City Attorney Aleksandr Boksner declined to comment Friday afternoon, stating that Levine does not comment on active litigation.

"This revelation proves that Mr. Levine knows that he keeps the very kind of social media block list I requested, which he and the city refuse to provide," Stern told New Times via email.

Stern's lawyer, Faud Pierre, said via email that the law "is clear, whether something is a public record depends on the nature of the record, not the form. If it wasn't the case, public officials could send an email concerning official business on Gmail and state that it's not a public record."

It appears Levine's block list has grown since Greben filed her request. Levine uses both his Twitter and Facebook accounts to make official announcements but has blocked a seemingly large number of accounts in the past year that have criticized him. Levine blocked New Times' Twitter account in October 2015 after this paper criticized him. (Despite the fact that Levine said it was a mistake, New Times is still blocked a year later.) 

Levine has a documented history of hitting back against critics. He once slammed activists for questioning his fundraising tactics, for example, and has steadfastly fought with the Miami Herald on stories that criticized his administration.

In June, Levine erroneously accused the Herald of "conspiring" with scientists to fabricate a "hit piece" about the fact that the city was pumping human and animal fecal matter into Biscayne Bay. (The Herald stuck by its story.) He compared the Herald to the National Enquirer, a charge he's also levied against New Times

(New Times also stuck by that story, for the record. Levine later recused himself from that voting conflict.)

Levine has also allegedly deleted scores of comments from his official Facebook page. He maintains both public and private pages, and Stern argues that Levine's public, mayoral account should be subject to the Florida Sunshine Law.

Greben, who works by day as a paralegal, runs an online blog chronicling the public officials who've blocked accounts online. She says she became interested in the burgeoning legal field surrounding official social media accounts last year after similar issues arose in her hometown in California.

"I started searching for people who were complaining about getting blocked on Twitter," she says. Once she found someone who'd been blocked by a public official, she'd file a records request for that politician's block list.

In response, Levine claimed his Facebook and Twitter accounts were private, not public records.

"As the Twitter Account referred to by Ms. Greben is not affiliated with the City of Miami Beach and controlled by Mayor Levine, personally, the account and anything related to it is not subject to any request for Public Record," Levine's campaign lawyer, Juan-Carlos Planas, wrote to Greben last year. "As such, Mayor Levine does not waive his right to maintain the privacy of his personal Twitter account."

However, in that same memo, Planas said Levine was happy to disclose his block list voluntarily.

However, in order to maintain an open dialogue with his constituents, Mayor Levine, without waiving any existing legal privilege, agrees to answer the question presented by Greben in the best manner he can. First, it is important to note that social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and generally open but allow participants to establish boundaries as to whom is allowed to view their posts. While Instagram and Facebook places the responsibility of who may view the posts on the primary user, Twitter allows anyone to “Follow” those posting tweets. On rare occasions, individuals may be blocked from viewing an individual’s tweets and tweeting at that person but the process is not as user friendly as Facebook or Instagram as Twitter works differently. As of the date of this request, the only individual being blocked on Mayor Levine’s Twitter Account is an individual referring to themselves as “Asscakes” and using the Twitter handle @assckessupreme. Mayor Levine found the name of the individual offensive and thus did not want this individual either tweeting at him or appearing on his tweets. The identity of this individual has not yet been identified.

The idea that official social media accounts function like public records is a new one and a burgeoning matter of law.

In 2014, a federal judge ordered Honolulu Police to pay a $31,000 fine for deleting comments from its public Facebook page. In January, the Austin Chronicle in Texas obtained the Austin Police Department's Twitter block list through a records request. That department had blocked 257 people.

Greben herself says she isn't motivated by any sort of anger or desire for revenge. Instead, she simply believes the public ought to have a say in how social media use among politicians is handled in the law.

"Even though Twitter is kind of hurting right now, the way public officials use social media is going to have lasting effects on society," Greben says. "If we accept certain behaviors from public officials now, it's going to be harder to correct them in the future."

Here's a copy of the document:

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.