Douglas County, Georgia resident Brenda Bohanan was blocked from County Commissioner Kelly G. Robinson’s Facebook page after she posted comments in an online political discussion group that were critical of the Commissioner’s responses to his constituents’ concerns.
Courts have consistently held that when government officials use online platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) to communicate with the public about their official role and activities, and allow members of the public to post comments, this creates a designated, or limited, public forum. As Clinic Director Clare R. Norins explained to the Douglas County Sentinel: “Even though it’s online, it’s still a forum where people can interact with the politician or the elected official. They can a) express their own views and b) receive information from the elected official about the official’s views.”
Douglas County Sentinel Article (Text)
It is a First Amendment violation for a government official to block a public citizen from participating in an otherwise open online dialogue based on the viewpoints expressed by that citizen, including criticism of or disagreement with the government official. This is because, under the First Amendment, government regulation of public citizens’ speech must be viewpoint neutral. The First Amendment also prohibits government officials from discriminating or retaliating against members of the public based on their speech.
Pursuant to the settlement in Ms. Bohanan’s case obtained by the First Amendment Clinic and co-counsel Gerry Weber, she and others blocked by Commissioner Robinson were to be unblocked and restored to access to the Commissioner’s Facebook page. The settlement also required that, going forward, the Commissioner would not unconstitutionally exclude members of the public from his Facebook page or delete their comments.
Commissioner Robinson subsequently violated the settlement agreement by not unblocking Ms. Bohanan, shutting down his Facebook page, and migrating its contents to a different Facebook URL from which Ms. Bohanan is also blocked.
On June 22, 2020, the First Amendment Clinic and co-counsel Weber filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Bohanan seeking a preliminary injunction against Commissioner Robinson for continuing to violate Ms. Bohanan’s First Amendment rights, and asserting breach of the settlement agreement.
If you have been blocked from a government entity’s or public official’s social media account that is otherwise open for public view and comment, please contact the First Amendment Clinic for consultation.