Fayette County has been ordered to comply with a request filed under the state’s Right-to-Know Law seeking records containing the names of all those a county commissioner may have blocked from his Facebook page over a two-year period.
The state Office of Open Records issued a final determination last week requiring the county to provide Marybeth Homistek of Fairchance any records responsive to her request for the names of any citizens that Commissioner Vincent A. Vicites, D-South Union Township, blocked and denied access to view, read or reply to what she stated was his official Facebook page.
Homistek, who alleged that Vicites blocked her on his official Facebook page, filed the RTK request in November 2019, seeking that information dating back to November 2017. The county denied the request, with county chief clerk and RTK officer Amy Revak stating that the request was “not considered a record of Fayette County.” Homistek appealed the denial in December.
The Office of Open Records ruled that the county failed to demonstrate that it doesn’t have any records responsive to the request, noting that Revak did not say in her attestation whether Vicites was contacted to see if he was in possession of any responsive records and concluding that the county didn’t conduct a “good faith search” in response to Homistek’s request.
Vicites has two Facebook pages on which he posts personal and professional updates and has often published the same posts on both pages recently.
In a statement, Vicites said there would be an appeal to the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas to correct what he said was an “erroneous decision.”
“I respectfully disagree with the decision of the Office of Open Records,” Vicites said. “The Facebook pages at issue were and are my personal pages used for personal and political matters. They are not ‘official’ or ‘governmental’ pages in any way. They are my private pages which I maintain in my individual capacity. As such, they are not subject to the Right-to-Know Law.”
Scrutiny of public officials blocking users on social media isn’t a new phenomenon.
When asked for comment, Homistek referenced a federal court ruling from July that the First Amendment does not allow public officials who use a social media account “for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees.”
That ruling affirmed a district court holding that President Donald Trump’s practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account violates the First Amendment after the Knight Institute filed a lawsuit in federal court against Trump and his aides for blocking people from Trump’s personal @realDonaldTrump Twitter account, which is different from the official @POTUS account.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said this week he would not unblock two men from his personal @JohnFetterman Twitter account who threatened to sue him if they did not unblock them on social media, and has said he doesn’t block users from his official government @Fettermanlt Twitter account.
Homistek referred further comment to her attorney Charity Grimm Krupa, who could not be reached. Revak declined comment.
Kathryn Jones of Uniontown, a prominent online critic of Vicites and other county officials, said that she discovered she was blocked from interacting with Vicites’s Facebook page last summer after Homistek asked her to try to interact on the page.
“Obviously, being able to participate freely and fully in the democratic process, and to exercise our First Amendment right to petition our government officials for a redress of our grievances, is important,” Jones said.
Homistek and Jones have also posted on discussion threads on local topics at Fay-West.com, where ad hominem and other inflammatory attacks on public officials and forum users abound. Jones said she did not recall ever interacting with Vicites on Facebook but couldn’t rule it out.