Like most politicians, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine campaigned on a platform of promising better transparency to his constituents.
And like most politicians, he proved to be a liar.
But unlike most politicians, he is being sued over his broken promise.
The lawsuit, which you can read here, was filed by Photography is Not a Crime’s very own Grant Stern.
Stern, who is PINAC’s Executive Director, filed his lawsuit Monday after Levine blocked him from the mayor’s official Twitter account over the summer, then deleted a comment from the mayor’s official Facebook account before blocking Stern from that page as well.
Stern then filed a public records request, asking for the mayor’s Facebook block list, but was told by a city attorney that the list is not public record.
But the list is long from what we’re gathering, an ever-growing list that includes dozens of people who have criticized the mayor’s policies at one point or another since taking office in 2013.
And lately, those criticisms have been piling up, especially this year after he was found to be underplaying the number of confirmed Zika cases on Miami Beach as well as the revelation that the city of Miami Beach was pumping sewer-infested water into Biscayne Bay.
But judging by the mayor’s tightly controlled social media pages, everything is fine and dandy on Miami Beach, which is the fourth largest municipality in Miami-Dade County, but the most popular tourist designation, especially its South Beach neighborhood.
The democratic mayor’s Facebook page is filled with photos of himself posing with Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Tim Kaine, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Cuban – all whom he is sure to tag – so he obviously doesn’t want them seeing the growing dissent in his community.
It’s just not good for business.
But neither are lawsuits.
Stern’s lawsuit not only asks for the list of citizens he has blocked on social media, which now include PINAC’s Twitter account after Stern used it to retweet a Miami New Times article about the lawsuit, but also asks for audio recordings of the mayor’s weekly SiriusXM radio show.
The radio show is only available to paid subscribers but Stern argues it should be available to all citizens free of charge because he discusses city business, especially in regards to the spread of Zika virus over the summer.
While suing a government agency over social media censorship is rare, it has been done before with the courts ruling on behalf of the plaintiffs, including in Hawaii where the Honolulu Police Department was ordered to pay $31,000 in attorney fees for removing negative comments from its Facebook page.
Earlier this year, the ACLU filed two lawsuits in Indiana; one against the city of Elkhart and one against the Martinsville Police Department for removing comments and blocking citizens from further commenting on government-operated Facebook pages.
“Government officials have an obligation to provide public records, no matter what form they may be in,” said Stern’s attorney, Faudlin Pierre.
“Citizens have a right to know what kind of public business their Mayor or city is doing, whether on SiriusXM Radio, Facebook or Twitter.”
You would hope Levine would understand that considering he was quoted in the Miami Herald saying the following after winning a highly contested mayoral election in 2013 in regards to winning over his critics.
“I will have to work even harder to earn their trust,” he said. “There are many cultures, but diversity is our strength. We have to complete the change that we set out to do and have a level of transparency.”
But three years later, when the Miami Herald requested copies of emails pertaining to the city’s water quality, Levine said it would cost a whopping $73,000.
But even before that, he wasted no time in shutting down his critics immediately after taking office, including Steve Berke, who ran against him in the election.
“When I ran against Philip Levine, I had a documentary film crew shooting the mayoral debates and was shocked at the lengths at which Levine tried to stop the filming,” Berke wrote in a Facebook message to Photography is Not a Crime.
“It was obvious then, even before he was mayor, that he didn’t believe in freedom of press. Levine then blocked me on Facebook, which shows that he has an ego so easily crushed by comments on Facebook, that he censors his detractors like some soviet-era dictator.”
But Stern is hoping to put an end to all that.
“My goal,in obtaining a copy of the mayor’s Facebook block list is to end his program of censoring critics online where their voices are most likely to be heard and their words seen,” he said.
“The First Amendment of our Constitution has long protected the right to address grievances to our government officials and the very strongest protections of that Right should apply in this case.”
UPDATE: The Columbia Journalism Review, one of the most respected journalistic trade publications, wrote its own analysis on the lawsuit, which you can read here. Fusion also wrote about the lawsuit, which you can read here.