In a major decision regarding free speech on social media, a federal appeals court has ruled that an official from Loudon County, Virginia violated a constituent's rights by briefly banning him on Facebook.
The ruling, issued Monday by a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, appears to be the first time a federal appellate court has addressed whether government officials can legally ban critics on social media.
In the ruling, the judges said that the ban -- which was in effect for around 12 hours -- marked “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”
The decision stems from a lawsuit dating to July of 2016, when Loudoun County, Virginia resident Brian Davison alleged his rights were violated when he was banned from commenting on a Facebook page operated by Phyllis Randall, chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. Randall instituted the ban after Davison made a post on Randall's page about alleged corruption and conflicts of interests at the local school board, according to court documents.
Randall later said she banned Davison because she was offended by his criticisms. The ban only lasted for one night.
U.S. District Court Judge James C. Cacheris in Alexandria ruled in July of 2017 that Randall violated Davison's free speech rights with the ban, writing that she “committed a cardinal sin under the First Amendment.”
On Monday, the 4th Circuit upheld that ruling. “Randall’s decision to ban Davison because of his allegation of governmental corruption constitutes black-letter viewpoint discrimination,” the appellate judges wrote.
The judges added that the interactive portion of Randall's Facebook page was a “public forum” -- comparable to parks or other venues where the government can't ban speech based on its content.
One reason for that holding was that Randall had expressly invited members of the public to comment on her Facebook page.
Randall “placed no formal limitations on the ability of Facebook personal profiles and Pages to access [her] and make comments and posts to the interactive component of the page,” the judges wrote. “On the contrary, she expressly invited posts to the page 'from ANY Loudon citizen on ANY issues, request, criticism ... or just your thoughts.'”
Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman notes that Randall's solicitation of comments from local residents bolstered Davison's argument in several respects. Among others, her invitation to discuss issues on Facebook supports the idea that her page is a “public forum.”
“The facts made it easier for the court to rule in Davison's favor,” he says. “The judges could simply quote the politician's words against her.”
The decision comes as a different federal appellate court -- the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York -- is gearing up to hear arguments on whether President Trump violated critics' free speech rights by banning them on Twitter.
U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in New York ruled against Trump last year, holding that it's unconstitutional for government officials like Trump to block Twitter users based on their political views. The Department of Justice has asked the 2nd Circuit to reverse that decision.