The First Amendment Clinic settled a lawsuit against Douglas County Commissioner Kelly G. Robinson for blocking a county resident from his interactive Facebook page that he used to communicate with the public about his official activities after she criticized his response to constituent concerns.

Clinic wins free speech protections against online censorship

The settlement obtained in Bohanan v. Robinson, 1:20-cv-02641-JPB (N.D. Ga.) provides that, consistent with current First Amendment case law, Commissioner Robinson must maintain a clear separation between his private Facebook page which he uses to communicate with his friends and family and any Facebook page that he uses to communicate with the public in furtherance of his official role. The settlement further provides that the Commissioner will not block users based on their protected speech — or delete their comments, or otherwise limit their ability to use the interactive features — on any Facebook page the Commissioner uses to communicate with the public in his capacity as a public official.

The settlement, which includes injunctive relief for plaintiff Brenda Bohanan and other Facebook users, as well as damages and attorneys’ fees, was finalized after the Clinic and co-counsel Gerry Weber filed a brief opposing the Commissioner’s motion to dismiss the First Amended Complaint.

Further information about the history of the case is available here.

The lawsuit and settlement, reported on by the Douglas County Sentinel and Fox 5 Atlanta, put Georgia public officials on notice that when they operate interactive social media accounts in their official capacity, the First Amendment does not permit them to block or censor a user’speech based on dislike or disagreement with the viewpoints the user expresses.

Clinic students Mark Bailey (2L), Anish Patel (3L), Davis Wright (2L), and Clinic Fellow Samantha Hamilton helped litigate the case under the supervision of Clinic Director Clare R. Norins. 2020 UGA Law graduate Erin McGonigle also assisted with the initial filing of the complaint.

If you have been blocked from a government entity or public official’s social media account that is otherwise open for public view and comment, please contact the First Amendment Clinic for consultation.

Clinic files lawsuit for Douglas County resident blocked from County Commissioner’s Facebook page after Commissioner breaches settlement agreement (updated November 2020)

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.”

It is a First Amendment violation for a government official, acting in their official capacity, to block a public citizen from participating in an open forum for online dialogue because of disagreement with or dislike of the citizen’s expressed viewpoint.  This is because, under the First Amendment, government regulation of private speech must be viewpoint-neutral.

Pursuant to the settlement initially obtained in Ms. Bohanan’s case 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 from his Page.  He instead changed the username, and therefore the URL, of the Page — from which Ms. Bohanan remained blocked — and removed some, but by no means all, of the official content from the publicly accessible Page.

On June 22, 2020, the First Amendment Clinic and co-counsel Weber filed a lawsuit against Commissioner Robinson on behalf of Ms. Bohanan seeking declaratory and injunctive relief for the violation of Ms. Bohanan’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and asserting breach of the settlement agreement.

After the lawsuit was filed, Commissioner Robinson converted his Facebook Page to a private setting and unblocked Ms. Bohanan so that she can see that the Page exists but cannot access its content.  Based on these newly arisen facts, the Commissioner moved to dismiss Ms. Bohanan’s complaint.

On September 11, 2020, the Clinic and Mr. Weber filed an amended complaint re-asserting free-speech claims based on Commissioner Robinson having blocked Ms. Bohanan when his Page was publicly accessible and adding a new First Amendment claim based on the Commissioner’s closing a virtual public forum for a viewpoint-discriminatory purpose.  The amended complaint also continued to assert breach of the earlier settlement agreement.

On October 12, 2020, the Commissioner moved to dismiss the amended complaint, which the Clinic and co-counsel opposed.

The case settled in November 2020 with provisions protecting the free-speech rights of Ms. Bohanan and other members of the public, and payment of damages, including attorneys fees.

Further Press Articles article – July 14, 2020 article – August 13, 2020

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.

A blue screen with a large button titled "Block" at the center with a mouse clicker over it.

The Issue

Social Media Blocking

The First Amendment protects speech on social media platforms that have been designated as public forums by government officials or agencies. Government officials cannot block individuals from accessing their social media pages simply because the government dislikes or disagrees with their speech. Read more about our work protecting citizen speech here.

Explore Issue