Official Violated First Amendment By Blocking Critic On Facebook

In a decision that could affect a lawsuit over President Donald Trump's blocking of Twitter users, a federal judge has ruled that a county official in Virginia violated the First Amendment rights of a local citizen by briefly blocking him on Facebook.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit dating to July of 2016, when Loudoun County, Virginia resident Brian Davison alleged that he was banned from posting on a Facebook page created by Phyllis Randall, chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.

Randall did so after Davison left a post on Randall's Facebook page that included allegations regarding corruption and conflicts of interests at the local school board, according to court documents. Randall later said she did so because she was offended by Davison's criticisms. The ban only lasted for one night, after which Randall lifted it.

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U.S. District Court Judge James C. Cacheris in Alexandria found that Randall violated Davison's free speech rights with the ban.

"By prohibiting plaintiff from participating in her online forum because she took offense at his claim that her colleagues in the county government had acted unethically, defendant committed a cardinal sin under the First Amendment," Cacheris wrote in a decision issued Tuesday.

In the ruling, Cacheris specifically found that Randall's Facebook page served as a "public forum" -- meaning that it was comparable to a park or city streets.

"When one creates a Facebook page, one generally opens a digital space for the exchange of ideas and information," Cacheris wrote. "Defendant did so here, deliberately permitting public comment on her “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page."

The judge added that Randall explicitly encouraged residents to submit comments, including criticisms, to her Facebook page.

While Cacheris found that Randall violated Davison's rights, the judge declined to issue an injunction against Randall, noting that she had already reversed the ban.

Internet law expert Venkat Balasubramani, who called attention to the case in a blog post, wrote that the judge's reasoning "is equally applicable" to Trump's Twitter account.

"What started off looking like a lark of a case could turn into consequential precedent for constraints on the ability of politicians, including President Trump, to block members of the public," he writes.

Earlier this month, seven Twitter users sued Trump for allegedly violating their First Amendment rights by blocking them on the service. That case is pending in federal court in Manhattan.

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