LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
For politicians, interacting with their constituents comes with the job. But social media makes it easy for lawmakers to do something it's hard to do in real life. They can block people who follow them on Twitter or Facebook. That's drawing the scrutiny of free-speech advocates. From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Julia Ritchey explores how local politicians are handling their critics online.
JULIA RITCHEY, BYLINE: Republican State Senator Todd Weiler is well-known among followers of Utah's political landscape. He freely admits he can be pretty sarcastic online and regularly tussles with critics on Twitter under the handle @gopTODD.
TODD WEILER: I mean, I kind of like to show people who I really am. And it's not a mean, nasty person. But it is someone who likes to laugh at himself and will occasionally laugh at others.
RITCHEY: While Weiler says he doesn't do it all that often, he does block people. Take what happened last February. Air pollution was peculiarly bad that week, as it often is during the winter here. So Jessica Rawson tweeted at Weiler after seeing him use what she thought was a mocking tone about air quality. This is what she tweeted.
JESSICA RAWSON: The disrespect you show your constituents is appalling. We are all choking and want to see serious action on this issue.
RITCHEY: And just like that, Weiler blocked her. A couple of weeks ago, while talking to the senator about his online habits, I asked if he'd be willing to talk to Rawson. To my surprise, he agreed.
Hey, this is Julia at KUER News. I'm actually sitting here with Senator Todd Weiler right now. So I was just going to put you on speakerphone really quick.
WEILER: Hi, Jessica.
RAWSON: Hello. Good morning.
WEILER: Good morning.
RITCHEY: Rawson was new to Twitter at the time. She says she was really surprised when he blocked her.
RAWSON: I had never been blocked by anyone (laughter). And my comment was critical, but I didn't feel like maybe block-worthy (laughter).
WEILER: Well, my guess was you caught me when the air quality outside was bad because it's bad every February typically.
WEILER: And I probably - it was during the session, so you were probably the eighth or ninth or 10th person that blamed me for that bad air that day. And I just probably had enough. I'm like, I'm not going to put up with this.
RITCHEY: Being one of the most active members of the Utah legislature online means Weiler attracts more flak than most. He says he only really has issues with people who make personal attacks on him, his family or his Mormon faith. John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, says, yes, obscenity and personal threats are not acceptable. But he's noticed more elected officials across the political spectrum are shutting out constituents.
JOHN MEJIA: And so from our perspective, if you're blocking somebody from commenting or even receiving your comments, that's a form of censorship that we felt had to stop.
RITCHEY: As for Senator Weiler and Jessica Rawson, they talked for almost half an hour. Rawson said she did some more research after being blocked and learned Weiler is actually pretty active on clean air issues. During their conversation, Weiler admitted he doesn't take Twitter that seriously. And maybe that's the problem.
WEILER: Twitter's more of a game for me. And I will say I learned a lot on Twitter, and I have never tried to cocoon myself like some people do, you know, to only have an echo chamber where I'm hearing what other Republicans are saying.
RITCHEY: Before they ended the call, Weiler told Rawson he had unblocked her, and he hopes they stay in touch.
WEILER: I'm not a mean person in real life. And I'm not typically a mean person on Twitter. So...
RAWSON: Hopefully, that's the same for me, right (laughter)?
RITCHEY: Both said they learned a lot from their conversation. Rawson says she doesn't want to seem like some kind of online troll. And Weiler says he doesn't, either. He says the phone call reminds him that the most meaningful engagement happens through talking to one another, not a tweet. For NPR News in Salt Lake City, I'm Julia Ritchey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.