Panel Says Politicians Can’t Block Voters on Facebook

(CN) – Ruling against an elected official in Virginia, the Fourth Circuit found that politicians violate the First Amendment when they ban constituents from official social media pages.

Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis J. Randall blocked constituent Brian Davison from commenting on her official Facebook page after he repeatedly posted critical remarks about local education issues.

The Fourth Circuit’s unanimous ruling Monday is the first from an appeals court to find that free-speech protections prevent public officials from booting negative commentators off their social media pages.

“Randall unconstitutionally sought to ‘suppress’ Davison’s opinion that there was corruption on the school board,” U.S. Circuit Judge James Wynn Jr. wrote for the three-member panel. “That Randall’s action targeted comments critical of the school board members’ official actions and fitness for office renders the banning all the more problematic as such speech “occupies the core of the protection afforded by the First Amendment.”

This ruling is significant, said Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum Institute.

“A federal appellate court has recognized that a social media page can be considered a public forum. It is recognition for how much of our political discourse takes place online,” she said via email.

Davison runs the Facebook page Virginia SGP, which uses an abbreviation for student growth percentiles, where he fiercely advocates for educational reform concerning finances and test scores.

He started the page after he was kicked out of a meeting at his children’s school, he told Courthouse News in a phone interview Tuesday.

Uncivil conversations at a physical meeting, he said, are very different from online discourse.

After being denied representation and legal support by several nonprofits, Davison represented himself in a lawsuit against Randall for blocking his Virginia SGP account from her county chair Facebook page after he posted comments following the contentious school board meeting.

“I am frustrated that pro selitigants have to fight on their own to protect free speech when these nonprofits, with millions of dollars, stand by,” Davison said.

He said that while the Fourth Circuit ruled in his favor, he did not consider the larger impact his case made.

Randall had argued in court that she had the right to block Davison at anytime because her page is not a public forum.

Davison said his intention in bringing the case was to focus on transparency in student growth percentiles in area schools, but the matter spiraled into modern free speech issues.

“Banning the speech of constituents only reflects poorly on the public official,” Davison said Tuesday.

But the ruling does not mean constituents can post anything they want on the social media pages of public officials, according to the First Amendment Center’s Nott.

“It just means that if a public official uses their social media page to communicate with their constituents (as opposed to just using it as a page to post photos of their grandchildren), they can’t ban someone from posting on that page based on that person’s viewpoint,” she wrote. (Parentheses in original.)

The Fourth Circuit decision comes less than a year after a federal judge in New York ruled it is unconstitutional for President Donald Trump to block critics on Twitter.

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