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Politicians Can't Block Voters on Facebook, Court Rules

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on January 09, 2019 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Politicians give up some personal rights as elected officials, and one of those is blocking haters. Though blocking those that challenge your viewpoints on Facebook is tempting and acceptable by the general public, that's not the case for politicians, according to one court. Another key take-away from this decision: a social media page can be considered a public forum. Facebook, you've come a long way, baby!

Politicians Can't Block Constituent Haters

The Fourth Circuit appellate court unanimously ruled that politicians violate the First Amendment when they ban their constituents from official social media pages. Brian Davison, a local constituent, repeatedly posted comments on Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis J. Randall's official web page, criticizing local education issues. Randall got fed up with it after Davison called the school board corrupt, and blocked Davison.

In the first such ruling by a court of appeals, the justices found that the First Amendment right to Free Speech protects negative commentators, even on social media platforms, such as Facebook. "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."

Social Media Is a Public Forum

People have greater rights to free speech when it's being conducted in a public forum. Specifically, the government can impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on speech in both public and non-public forums, but has limited ability to impose content-based restrictions on traditional or designated public forums. Designating Facebook as a public forum, instead of just a platform or publisher, means that the government can only place limited restrictions on comments, and blocking someone is hardly limited.

This decision is the first of its kind at the appellate level, but is along the same lines as one a year ago, when a federal judge in New York ruled it unconstitutional for President Donald Trump to block critics on Twitter. Davison was representing himself in this lawsuit, and was quite disappointed that nonprofits that traditionally pitch in to help plaintiffs in free speech cases, such as the ACLU, did not offer their support. Though his main issue in this fight is about school offerings, and not free speech, he definitely appreciated the relation between the two topics, stating "Banning the speech of constituents only reflects poorly on the public official."

If you feel like your right to free speech has been curbed by politicians on a public forum, contact a local civil rights attorney. Our country was founded on the belief that we grow stronger together when we challenge the government. Don't be bullied. Ask an attorney to help you stand up for your rights

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