U.S. District Judge James Cacheris in Alexandria, VA, ruled that politicians who block followers on social media violates free speech.

From The Wall Street Journal:

A federal court in Virginia ruled that a local politician violated the free-speech rights of a constituent she banned from her Facebook page, in a case the judge said raises “important questions” about the constitutional restrictions that apply to social media accounts of elected officials.

Virginia Case

Phyllis Randall, the chairwoman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, blocked constituent Brian Davison “from her Facebook page after he posted criticism of local officials last year.”

Davison decided to sue:

Judge Cacheris, finding that Phyllis Randall was ​acting as a public official on her Facebook page, said Ms. Randall committed “a cardinal sin under the First Amendment.”

“The suppression of critical commentary regarding elected officials is the quintessential form of viewpoint discrimination against which the First Amendment guards,” Judge Cacheris wrote in his 44-page ruling on Tuesday.

Randall’s lawyer Julia Judkins could not understand how Cacheris “equated Ms. Randall’s personal Facebook page to a government account” since she doesn’t use “county resources to maintain” the page.

But Cacheris explained that Randall has used the page “to solicit comments from her constituents.” Davison argued that Randall posted on Facebook “during business hours and meshed the trappings of her office, including her government email address, into her account.”

It’s important to note that Randall only blocked Davison’s ability to comment on her posts. Davison could still view and share the posts on the page.

Reason reported:

Cacheris rejected Randall’s contention that her Facebook page “is merely a personal website that she may do with as she pleases.” He notes that she and her chief of staff created it shortly before she took office, that it it lists her official position and contact information, and that she uses it primarily for official purposes such as describing the supervisors’ work, implementing their policies, documenting her appearances as a representative of the county government, and communicating with her constituents. “I really want to hear from ANY Loudoun citizen on ANY issues, request, criticism, compliment, or just your thoughts,” she says in one post. “However, I really try to keep back and forth conversations (as opposed to one time information items such as road closures) on my county Facebook page (Chair Phyllis J. Randall) or County email (phyllis.randall@loudoun.gov).”

Randall’s posts are generally addressed to “Loudon”—i.e., the general public in her county. The forum that she created on Facebook was open to everyone except for Davison, who by her own account offended her by criticizing her colleagues on the school board. “Plaintiff is the only person Defendant has ever banned from her Facebook page,” Cacheris notes. Since Randall reconsidered that decision the next day, “the consequences of Defendant’s actions were fairly minor.” Even during the 12 hours when Davison was banned, he could still read and share Randall’s posts, although he could not comment on them or send direct messages to her.

Help Twitter Users’ Case Against Trump?

In early July, a group of Twitter users sued President Donald Trump for blocking them on Twitter. The New York Times reported:

The blocked Twitter users, represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, raised cutting-edge issues about how the Constitution applies to the social media era. They say Mr. Trump cannot bar people from engaging with his account because they expressed opinions he did not like, such as mocking or criticizing him.

“The @realDonaldTrump account is a kind of digital town hall in which the president and his aides use the tweet function to communicate news and information to the public, and members of the public use the reply function to respond to the president and his aides and exchange views with one another,” the lawsuit said.

This case may give those Twitter users a boost when they receive their day in court.

At Reason, Jacob Sellum explained that even though Trump established his Twitter account years before he became president, “the profile now identifies him by his public position and official address, and he uses the account mainly for official purposes.” Sullum continued:

All are welcome to participate in this forum except for the disfavored few who have said something that offended Trump, which is clearly a form of viewpoint discrimination. Like Davison when he was banned from Randall’s Facebook page, the critics Trump blocks on Twitter can still see what he says, but they cannot directly participate in the debate it provokes on that platform. In short, if Cacheris is right that Randall’s banishment of Davison was unconstitutional, it is hard to see how Trump’s blocking of disfavored Twitter users can be legal.


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