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When Is a Facebook Page a Public Forum? ... and Other Legal News You May Have Missed

By Richard Dahl on March 01, 2022 | Last updated on March 07, 2022

Is an office holder's personal Facebook page a public forum with implied guarantees of public access and free speech?

On Feb. 25 a federal appeals court said no.

Jeff Swanson, chairman of the Otero County Democratic Party in New Mexico, sued Couy Griffin, a county commissioner and co-founder of Cowboys for Trump, for blocking Swanson from his private Facebook page.

Facebook indefinitely suspended Griffin's account following his arrest in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but the legal dispute over his social media account persists.

Swanson, a Marine veteran and church chaplain, criticized Griffin for neglecting county duties and urged him not to mix politics and religion. After Griffin blocked him, he sued on the grounds that Griffin's Facebook page was a public forum with implied guarantees of public access and free speech.

But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit said that Swanson failed to show that the law has determined when a personal social media page becomes a public forum with First Amendment protections.

An attorney for Swanson said he intends to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

Texas Power Provider Can Be Sued, Court Says

Is the operator of Texas' beleaguered power grid immune from winter storm lawsuits?

On Feb. 23, a state appeals court said no.

In a 12-1 ruling, the court said the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is not protected by sovereign immunity, which typically protects government entities from lawsuits.

Justice Erin Nowell wrote that while the Public Utility Commission of Texas maintains some authority over ERCOT, "ERCOT is a purely private entity that is not created or chartered by government, maintains some autonomy, is operated and overseen by its CEO and board of directors, and does not receive any tax revenue."

In February 2021, Texas experienced a major power outage from winter storms. More than 4 million homes and businesses lost power and hundreds of people died, directly or indirectly, as a result.

Failure to winterize power sources was the major cause of the outage. Texas also lacked backup power because it is not connected to either of the two national grids, a stance Texas maintains to avoid federal oversight.

A 'Bill of Rights' for Dogs and Cats?

Imagine a world where your dog or cat can take you to court.

It might not go quite that far, but a bill under consideration in the California Assembly seeks to give cats and dogs the same legal rights as humans.

"Dogs and cats have the right to be respected as sentient beings that experience complex feelings that are common among living animals while being unique to each individual animal," the bill says.

The "Dog and Cat Bill of Rights" would give pets multiple rights, including the right to health care, nutritious food, and freedom from abuse and neglect.

It would also require every public rescue group and animal association to post the bill of rights in a conspicuous place or face a $250 fine.

Going to Bat for Bats

Bats may not have as many admirers as dogs and cats do, but they do have defenders.

On Feb. 28, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Kentucky Resources Council filed a formal notice of intent to sue two federal agencies for failing to protect endangered bats from potential harm posed by the construction of a pipeline in Kentucky.

Three species of bats on the Endangered Species List — Indiana bats, northern long-eared bats, and gray bats — rely on caves and other underground habitats in the project area for survival, according to the notice.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the project would not threaten the bats, but the filers of the notice disagreed.

Perrin de Jong said the Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ignored the presence of caves.

"We're here to say that sticking one's head in the sand is not a method for avoiding extinction," de Jong said. "Kentucky's bats deserve better."

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