When Grant Stern sent a critical tweet at Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine over the summer, the politician quickly blocked the local activist. So Stern took his comments to the mayor’s official Facebook page and was swiftly blocked there too. Soon, he says, he heard from dozens of others who said the mayor had deleted their comments and blocked their accounts after they questioned or criticized him online.
Stern filed a public records request for the names of everyone blocked by the mayor on social media, but the city denied it. Now he’s taking his battle to court.
In a lawsuit filed Monday, Stern argues that Levine, as "a 21st-century mayor," uses his social media accounts to communicate official city business, thus making his accounts subject to the Florida Sunshine Law, which requires certain proceedings of government agencies to be available to the public.
“I want to find out the total number of people that he’s silenced and expose him as someone practicing extensive official censorship,” Stern tells New Times. “I want to expose his official censorship for what it really is. It’s lawless activity.”
A spokeswoman for Levine referred questions to Deputy City Attorney Aleksandr Boksner. He says the city has not yet been served with the suit but does not comment on pending litigation.
Stern says he believes the online “censorship” is part of a larger lack of governmental transparency in Miami Beach. He pointed to officials’ decision to keep secret the locations where Zika-carrying mosquitoes were found. (Levine and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez told the Miami Herald they were following instructions from the state Department of Health, a claim the department denied.) He also cites the city's admission it overcharged the Herald for records on water quality.
In addition, the lawsuit seeks audio recordings from a show Levine hosts on SiriusXM called The Mayor. The show is available to SiriusXM subscribers, but Stern argues its content should be available for free because Levine discusses city matters, including the spread of the Zika virus. Stern wants to review copies of any contracts related to the show as well.
On Facebook and Twitter, many of the deleted comments dealt with Zika or sewage in Biscayne Bay, Stern says. Members of anti-naled groups on Facebook have complained for weeks about their comments being removed from the mayor's page.
Stern says some comments were critical; others were simply questions.
"Mayor Levine is using censorship to wrongly inform public opinion about the most important issues that affect Miami Beach residents and visitors," he says. "And I want that to end. I want him to cease censorship. If he can't say what he wants to say without a response, then maybe what he is saying is not true. Maybe it's false... If you censor those who disagree, then it creates the appearance of agreement."
Stern says he hopes his lawsuit helps ensure that social media accounts run by government entities "are forever known as public records, without any question."