Case Law Update
4th Circuit Court of Appeals holds County Official Violated First Amendment by “blocking” critic.
On Monday, January 7, 2018, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a county official who blocked a critic from her Facebook page violated the First Amendment. The case involved the Board Chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Phyllis J. Randall, who created the “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook Page. The page included information about issues relevant to the board’s business and important updates for the board’s constituents.
It also invited “ANY Loudoun citizen” to visit the page and comment “on ANY issues.” When a citizen posted a comment critical of the board, including at least one comment suggesting that the Board members were accepting financial “kickbacks,” the Chair Randall chose to delete the post and ban the citizen from her page. The ban was temporary, but it led the citizen to file a federal lawsuit against the Board Chair, in her official and individual capacity, as well as against the rest of the Board, in their official and individual capacities.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Facebook page was a “public forum” for the purposes of the First Amendment and the Chair’s decision to “block” the comments of a critic of the board chair was unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.
This is the first Federal court of appeals ruling on whether the First Amendment applies to government-run social media sites. In May 2018, a lower court in New York held that President Trump’s blocking of critics from his Twitter account violated the First Amendment. That appeal is currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
The court’s full opinion is available here.
If your Board has questions about social media practices, our attorneys are happy to provide guidance or training for your members.