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New Athens man goes after local and state officials who blocked him on Facebook

Standing in a pink tank top, Gene Triefenbach talks a room of seated village officials.
File photo
Belleville News-Democrat
Local activist Gene Triefenbach protests water and sewer rate hikes at a Marissa Village Board meeting in 2017, when he still lived in the village. He later moved to New Athens.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

Gene Triefenbach is a local activist known for using strong terms to voice his opinion, whether promoting marijuana legalization or objecting to increased water and sewer rates.

Now the New Athens man is taking aim at officials who try to block him or remove his posts from government Facebook pages.

“If you are (a government page administrator), you can say in the next comment, ‘This man is wrong,’ but you can’t say, ‘I am going to stifle you,’” Triefenbach said. “And that’s what they’ve done, and that’s what they feel comfortable doing.”

Triefenbach was speaking of New Athens Mayor Joe Behnken, who administered a community Facebook page that is no longer active; and page administrators for Village of Marissa Emergency Management Agency, Illinois Sen. Christopher Belt (D-Swansea) and New Athens Fire Co. #1.

Triefenbach was blocked and had comments removed from all four pages before he was reinstated.

“They violated my right to free speech,” he said.

In the New Athens case, Mayor Behnken maintained that Triefenbach broke the page’s rule against “foul and abusive language.” The village’s insurance company later paid him a $30,000 settlement to keep it out of court.

Triefenbach is still in talks with two of the other government entities that blocked him on Facebook.

Limited leeway

Virginia’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2019 that the interactive portion of a government official’s Facebook page is a “public forum,” and people can’t be blocked for posting their opinions.

Subsequent cases have “refined” the law to allow officials to remove comments or block people under specific circumstances, according to Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois.

“A public entity can block all comments if that’s what they want to do,” he said. “Alternately, they can block some comments if the reason for blocking them is clear, consistent rules that are applied to everyone.”

Yohnka gave the example of rules against profanity or personal attacks that are unfounded or unwarranted.

“What you can’t do is selectively block comments simply because you don’t like what the person says or it doesn’t agree with the majority opinion,” Yohnka said. “That is not allowed (by government officials).”

This is in contrast to citizens who don’t hold public office. They can remove comments from their pages or unfriend people for any reason or no reason, according to Facebook.

COVID disagreement

Triefenbach is a retiree who formerly worked as a lobbyist and car salesman, sold marijuana and volunteered with the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. The Marissa native moved to New Athens two years ago.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Triefenbach criticized New Athens officials for allegedly allowing local bars and restaurants to continue operating, despite a temporary state ban.

Triefenbach posted comments on a public Facebook page called New Athens Concerned Citizens, which wasn’t an “official” village page, but it was administered by Mayor Behnken.

“It was the defacto communication tool for the village of New Athens,” Triefenbach said. “If there was a boil order, storm warning, announcement of whether the Village Hall was open or closed, all that was posted on this page.”

One of Triefenbach’s posts in 2020 included a reference to a man “pissing off the porch” of a bar across the street from his house, according to Behnken, who removed the comment and blocked him from the page.

“It’s not about what I feel is right,” the mayor said last week. “It’s what is appropriate for a Facebook page that has decorum and civility.”

Behnken said he also blocked 49 other people for breaking the rule against foul and abusive language. Triefenbach alleges that many were blocked for trying to advertise a Black Lives Matter rally.

Triefenbach’s attorney, Patrick Sullivan, of Belleville, notified the village that his client was contemplating a lawsuit and maintained his civil rights had been violated. Behnken turned the case over to the village’s insurance company, which paid the $30,000 settlement.

Several New Athens residents demanded that Behnken resign, saying he wasted taxpayer money, according to minutes of the Village Board meeting on Dec. 20, 2021.

This week, the mayor said the settlement didn’t cost the village any money and it wasn’t an admission of guilt.

“The insurance companies recognize the fact that threats on constitutional grounds are exceedingly expensive to defend, and what they do is weigh the (settlement) costs against going to court,” he said. “Furthermore, I believe they feel that federal judges are not happy having their dockets crowded by malicious, nuisance lawsuits.”

None of the other 49 people blocked from the Facebook page took legal action against the village, according to Behnken.

The mayor turned the New Athens Concerned Citizens page over to another administrator, who later deactivated it. A private page called New Athens Community essentially replaced it.

There are now three other community Facebook pages, including New Athens EXTREMELY Concerned Citizens, New Athens Community Building and New Athens Concerned Citizens That Aren’t Racist.

Landfill comment

Triefenbach has long argued that a Marissa landfill has caused cancer among village residents. He referred to that issue in a 2021 comment that was posted in reaction to a storm warning on the Village of Marissa Emergency Management Agency Facebook page.

“I pointed out to them, ‘Hey, nobody’s ever died in Marissa because of a storm, but everybody in my block, where my house was in Marissa before I sold it, every house has had somebody with cancer, and three of them on the block has had somebody die,’” Triefenbach said.

The comment was removed, and Triefenbach was blocked from the page. He was later reinstated after talking to Mayor Chad Easton, who wasn’t the administrator who blocked him.

Last week, Easton said he couldn’t comment on the specific case because Triefenbach’s attorney had approached officials about possible litigation, but he agreed to speak in general terms on the issue of public access to village Facebook pages.

“My position is that everybody is entitled to free speech and being able to post on government media sites without persecution or retribution,” the mayor said.

Post on pain killers

Triefenbach has posted several comments on Sen. Belt’s Facebook page, demanding action on what he sees as a problem with doctors refusing to prescribe pain medication for fear of legal jeopardy related to the opioid crisis. He also has communicated with staffers by phone and private message.

Triefenbach said his wife, Christine Meggs, suffers from excruciating pain caused by cancer surgery.

“I told Christopher Belt, and he blocked me for it (in March), and he took my message down that no one should have to watch their loved one die screaming in pain,” Triefenbach said. “It’s bad enough watching them die, period.”

Triefenbach was reinstated on Belt’s Facebook page last week.

Triefenbach said he personally knows of New Athens-area residents who have begun taking illegal and dangerous “fake” drugs to treat pain because of their inability to get prescriptions.

“It’s got to stop, and it’s got to stop right away,” he said. “This isn’t a dress rehearsal. When people are dead, they’re dead.”

Triefenbach said he’s weighing his legal options after being blocked on Belt’s Facebook page, but his main goal is getting legislation passed to give doctors in Illinois more protection when they prescribe pain medication.

Belt employee Brandy Renfro responded by email to a BND request for a phone interview with the senator or staff member last week, stating that no one was available to comment on Triefenbach’s case.

“The individual you inquired about is not blocked from the Senator’s page,” she wrote.

Triefenbach said New Athens Fire Co. #1 blocked him from its Facebook page several years ago after he posted a comment questioning why residents weren’t allowed to walk their dogs on the village’s levy during a flood, given that officials claimed the levy was safe.

According to Triefenbach, he took no legal action because the fire chief reinstated him the same day.

Teri Maddox is a reporter and editor with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.