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Appeals Court: First Amendment Violation To Ban Members Of The Public From Gov't Officials' Facebook Pages

Late last spring, a federal court in New York made it clear Trump's blocking of Twitter users violated those users' First Amendment rights. As the court reasoned then, Twitter may be a private company, but the use of it by government official to engage with the public makes it a limited public forum -- limited to Trump's account and Twitter users' interaction with it. Twitter remains free to moderate as it pleases. The ruling did not say Twitter itself was a public forum, just government officials' use of the platform via official accounts.

When Trump's account blocked people he didn't like, he violated the First Amendment.

Here, the individual plaintiffs were indisputably blocked as a result of viewpoint discrimination. The record establishes that "[s]hortly after the Individual Plaintiffs posted the tweets . . . in which they criticized the President or his policies, the President blocked each of the Individual Plaintiffs," ... and defendants do "not contest Plaintiffs' allegation that the Individual Plaintiffs were blocked from the President's Twitter account because the Individual Plaintiffs posted tweets that criticized the President or his policies." ... The continued exclusion of the individual plaintiffs based on viewpoint is, therefore, impermissible under the First Amendment.

Nearly a year later, another lawsuit involving government officials and their social media accounts has reached the appellate level. And the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has come to the same conclusion. The stakes may be smaller -- shrinking from the President and his millions of followers to a Virginia county board member -- but the outcome is the same. From the decision [PDF]:

The Chair's Facebook Page also is "compatib[le] with expressive activity." Cornelius, 473 U.S. at 802. "Congress [has] recognized the internet and interactive computer services as offering 'a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.'" Zeran v. Am. Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327, 330 (4th Cir. 1997) (quoting 47 U.S.C. § 230(a)(3)); cf. Bland, 730 F.3d at 386 (finding post to campaign Facebook page "constituted pure speech"). And the Supreme Court recently analogized social media sites, like the Chair's Facebook Page, to "traditional" public forums, characterizing the internet as "the most important place[] (in a spacial sense) for the exchange of views." Packingham v. North Carolina, 137 S. Ct. 1730, 1735 (2017). An "exchange of views" is precisely what Randall sought—and what in fact transpired—when she expressly invited "ANY Loudoun citizen" to visit the page and comment "on ANY issues," and received numerous such posts and comments.

But Chairperson Phyllis Randall didn't like Brian Davison's comments on any issues, especially those related to ethics and school board spending. So she banned Davison from posting comments to her page -- the same page she declared to be her "county Facebook page." The court's description of the page leaves little doubt it was being used as an official tool of communication by Phyllis Randall.

Randall created and administered the Chair's Facebook Page to further her duties as a municipal official. She used the Chair's Facebook Page "as a tool of governance," id. at 713: through the Chair's Facebook Page, Randall provides information to the public about her and the Loudoun Board's official activities and solicits input from the public on policy issues she and the Loudoun Board confront.

If a government official is going to use a social media account in this fashion, they can't ban others from accessing it or posting comments without violating the First Amendment. Randall's arguments about how "public" this "public forum" was -- what with a private company providing the communications platform -- don't budge the needle at all. As the court points out, any interpretation still leads to First Amendment violations.

Upon concluding that interactive component of the Chair's Facebook Page amounts to a public forum, we would normally need to determine whether it constitutes a traditional public forum or designated or limited public forum. In the present case, however, we need not decide that question because Randall's ban of Davison amounted to "viewpoint discrimination," which is "prohibited in all forums."

This really shouldn't be up for discussion but it will be as long as politicians think they can enjoy the advantages of third-party social media platforms with none of the downside. Talking to the public is always going to result in comments and questions government officials don't want to hear. But that's part of job. Being a public servant means dealing with the public, which can often be far from pleasant. Banning people on platforms is an easy way to silence critics, but it's almost always going to be a violation of their rights.

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