A federal appeals court said a county supervisor violated free speech rights by blocking a constituent from commenting on the official's Facebook page.
In Davison v. Randall, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said a Virginia county supervisor blocked a man from posting critical remarks about local education. Because the supervisor designated the page as official, the appeals court said, the First Amendment protected the comments.
Free speech advocates called it a "significant ruling" and a warning to politicians that they cannot just block critics on social media.
Alleging corruption on the local school board, Brian Davison posted his opinion on the official Facebook page of Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis J. Randall. After Davison made repeated remarks on the page, Randall blocked him.
He sued in pro per, and a trial judge ruled in his favor. On appeal, local and state attorney associations backed the supervisor. The American Civil Liberties Union filed amici briefs for Davison.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The panel said the supervisor violated the First Amendment by unconstitutionally suppressing an opinion about government.
"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,'" Judge James Wynn Jr. wrote for the three-member panel.
Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum Institute, said a social media page can be considered a public forum. It does not mean people can post anything they want, however.
"It just means that if a public official uses their social media page to communicate with their constituents, they can't ban someone from posting on that page based on that person's viewpoint," she told Courthouse News.
It's not the first time a court has called out a politician for violating free speech on social media. Last year, a federal judge ruled that President Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking comments on Twitter.