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Appeals court rules that politicians cannot block citizens on social media

By midian182 · 7 replies
Jan 8, 2019
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  1. In a 3-0 decision, the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals found that the chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors—Phyllis Randall—violated the First Amendment rights of Brian Davison when she blocked him for 12 hours from her official “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page.

    Following a town hall meeting in early 2016, Davison posted an accusation of corruption against Loudoun School Board members and their families on Randall’s page, which prompted her to ban him. Randall unbanned Davison the next day, but she had deleted her post that contained the messages.

    In 2017, Davison sued and won. US District Judge James Cacheris ruled that as Randall was acting as a public official, she violated the First Amendment by "suppressing critical commentary regarding elected officials."

    “She wants the public to believe she’s transparent but then to ban critics,” Davison said at the time.

    Randall appealed to the 4th Circuit, arguing that her Facebook page was a private website. The court disagreed, ruling that her page "bear[s] the hallmarks of a public forum" that could be used to discuss county matters “from ANY Loudon citizen on ANY issues.”

    Davison had been represented by lawyers at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University—the same group that filed a lawsuit against Donald Trump on behalf of seven Twitter users he blocked. A federal judge also ruled that Trump's actions are a violation of people’s First Amendment rights, but the case is being appealed before the 2nd circuit.

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    Last edited: Jan 8, 2019
  2. Squid Surprise

    Squid Surprise TS Evangelist Posts: 2,546   +1,536

    I agree with this decision. A politician's Facebook page is a public information place, and to block someone who is posting valid concerns (whether or not the actual posts were true is irrelevant) should not be legal.

    I'm not sure the same logic applies to Trump's Twitter, as Twitter is more of a "one-way" communication medium, and being blocked doesn't really impact much... but we'll have to wait and see.
  3. Uncle Al

    Uncle Al TS Evangelist Posts: 5,389   +3,776

    Cudo's to the court .... they got this one right!
  4. psycros

    psycros TS Evangelist Posts: 2,712   +2,509

    AFAIK there has never been a federal law that guarantees equal access to "public forums" held by governmental agents or entities. Some states and other local entities do have laws like this but I can't find anything like that for the country as a whole. Free speech means you can say whatever you like but it does not give you the right to express yourself wherever you like. If such a law existed then anyone would be able to stroll into a press conference or town hall meeting, but the attendees are always either hand-picked, chosen by lottery or its whoever got a seat first. While I don't fundamentally disagree with the idea behind this decision its clearly just the latest instance of legislating from the bench..and not all that effective of a decision, really. Politicians just need to maintain both an official page and a personal one, and they can say whatever they like (freedom of speech!) and also block whoever they like on the latter. If an activist appeals court tries to block that their going to eventually get stomped by the Supreme Court. Also, if blocking people on social media is a first amendment violation then what about all the people that President Obama and Secretary Clinton had ejected from their public forums whenever they were questioned or faced with inconvenient facts? I'm not talking about hecklers but people who asked questions in turn and then were attacked by most of the crowd. No call for calm from either leader, no attempt to answer, just security dragging these people away. Where was the 4th circuit court then?
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2019
  5. wiyosaya

    wiyosaya TS Evangelist Posts: 3,979   +2,282

    I see it as a test of first amendment rights. Only with the advent of electronic public forums such as "social media" has this kind of test become possible. AFAIK, no law does exist, however, that does not mean that it is not an infringement of 1st amendment rights - at least as I see it.

    While it is possible to argue that some type of selection process is necessary when a conference room or town hall meeting is involved because of safety concerns if there were too many people present in the room, I think that same argument is harder to make when an electronic medium is involved since it simply does not have those limitations that could effect public safety.

    OTOH, if the person blocked were inciting violence or using vulgar language, then it has already been decided by SCOTUS that such conduct is not protected by 1st amendment rights.

    I would also be surprised if congress was able to pass a law that allows exclusion of people from electronic, and notably public, forums that would apply in such instances since such a law would directly conflict with the 1st amendment. If congress tried, it would go to court, and, hopefully, would be eventually opposed by SCOTUS because of the 1st amendment.

    Since no such law exists that says respectful dialog can be blocked, does it mean that congress has to pass a law saying that respectful dialog can be blocked on public media so that this issue is able to proceed through the courts to SCOTUS to test its constitutionality?

    As I see it, the person bringing the suit is acting within their constitutional right to petition for redress which is also part of the 1st amendment. IMO, things start down a slippery slope if we start allowing public officials to block respectful speech that expresses valid concerns.

    Authoritarian regimes practice suppression the citizen's voice with complete impunity. IMO, constitutional rights fall apart if we allow pubic officials to engage in such practices in the US especially if we insist that they cannot be heard in court until there is a law strictly forbidding such conduct.
  6. Adorerai

    Adorerai TS Enthusiast Posts: 53   +23

    So does this also mean politicians and public officials shouldn't be using platforms that filter, flag or remove speech? If it's not ok for the president to block a citizen, should the president or any other officials be using a services like Facebook or Twitter that can ultimately block a citizen?
    noel24 likes this.
  7. Capaill

    Capaill TS Evangelist Posts: 894   +497

    I have to hand it to Trump, he's keeping the legal folks busy this term.

    As for Trump's account and rights on Twitter, as soon as he started using it to announce US presidential policy, it became a public forum. Frankly he should have been forced to close all social media accounts when he took office and only use official channels.
    wiyosaya likes this.
  8. cliffordcooley

    cliffordcooley TS Guardian Fighter Posts: 11,388   +5,015

    Just wait till he leaves office. Trump will be required to turn over his Twitter account for archiving.
    wiyosaya likes this.

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