Incumbent Yellowknife North MLA Cory Vanthuyne has blocked his constituent and prospective fall election opponent Rylund Johnson on Facebook and Twitter.
On the face of it a low-grade social media scrap between imminent election rivals, Johnson says the move carries more meaning than that.
Johnson sees it as a sitting politician blocking a constituent and refusing to allow a competitor access to his platform.
“At first I was a little surprised. I was just trying to find Cory on Twitter to see what he was posting,” said Johnson, who described finding out he was blocked by Vanthuyne on Monday.
Johnson said he and Vanthuyne have a good relationship in person and nothing has happened that he would frame as combative or that would warrant blocking.
“Oddly, we have had little to no interaction on social media,” wrote Johnson on his public Facebook page.
Vanthuyne could not be reached by phone on Tuesday or Wednesday and did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
“I think it’s a bad precedent,” said Johnson. “Social media platforms are fundamental to democracy – this is a debate playing out all over the world. To what extent should we view social media accounts by public figures as part of the public sphere?”
He feels it can be argued that MLA accounts do not belong to individuals, but to the public body they represent.
“It’s a misguided viewpoint that you can control dissenting opinions,” he stated.
Vanthuyne and Johnson’s relationship is still primarily that of MLA and constituent, Johnson said, as neither is yet able to officially become a candidate for the October 1 NWT election. Each has announced their intention to run in Yellowknife North when nominations open in September.
Johnson, describing being unable to communicate with his MLA via social media, sent him an email asking if they could meet up in person to discuss Vanthuyne’s position.
“I understand if you don’t want to interact on those platforms, but I hope this doesn’t set the precedent for an election that is anything but respectful,” Johnson wrote to Vanthuyne late on Monday night.
In the morning, Vanthuyne responded by email: “Regardless of being a constituent you have announced your intention to run in the upcoming election in Yellowknife North so that makes you a fellow competitor for this seat.
“I have my reasons for blocking competitors on my social media feeds and I will keep those reasons to myself.”
Vanthuyne assured Johnson “there’s no malice or bad intentions” and wished him well, before declining the offer to meet in person.
‘What if he said I couldn’t show up to his speeches?’
In the United States, a federal appeals court recently ruled President Donald Trump’s blocking of critics formed a violation of the country’s First Amendment rights, which in part relate to freedom of speech.
In Canada, no such case has played out in the courts, but Johnson pointed to an article in which a Canadian Civil Liberties Association director reflected on the American case.
“I think a Canadian court might well find a Charter violation in similar circumstances since these online spaces have become our new public squares,” wrote Cara Zwibel.
A case against Ottawa mayor Jim Watson by three constituents he had blocked was settled last fall when Watson agreed to unblock the residents and concede his account was public.
Vanthuyne’s Twitter handle, bio, and website all indicate he is the MLA for Yellowknife North. His Facebook profile is entitled “Cory Vanthuyne – MLA Yellowknife North.”
Johnson said while Vanthuyne’s accounts are public, he is “curating who the audience is and who is able to view his information as an MLA representing the public.”
Being blocked means Johnson won’t have a chance to engage with or challenge Vanthuyne in the online public sphere, he argued, asking: “What if he said I couldn’t show up to his speeches?”
“I have the utmost respect for Cory. We have a good working relationship in person, we know each other, and we get along,” said Johnson. “I’m more upset by the ideas he’s posturing.”