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An update on the legality of US politicians and public officials blocking people on social media

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The legal debate (this one stemming from different interpretations and conclusions by courts themselves) as to whether government officials are allowed to block constituents on social media has received another argument against.

It came with the ruling of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri in the Felts v. Vollmer case. Sarah Felts sued, on First Amendment violation grounds, after Lewis Reed – a politician who was president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen for 15 years – blocked her on Twitter.

We obtained a copy of the ruling for you here.

In June this year, Reed resigned after he was federally indicted on bribery charges, to which he has in the meantime pleaded guilty.

But back in early 2019, Reed still held that position, and had a Twitter account, @PresReed, set up ten years earlier, which was used in what the court has now found to have been an official, i.e., government capacity.

The Twitter exchange that got Felts blocked revolved around the Workhorse jail, run by the city of St. Louis. Her “offending” tweet read, “What do you mean by ‘change the messaging around #CloseTheWorkhouse,’ @PresReed? #STLBOA #aldergeddon2019 #WokeVoterSTL.”

Reed allegedly took offense at the “#aldergeddon2019” hashtag, interpreting it as “a threat of violence,” and cited this as the reason to block Felts, who then in 2020 proceeded to sue.

Reed’s successor at the helm of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, Interim-President Joseph Vollmer, filed a motion to dismiss the case, which previously, after cross-motions for summary judgment got denied by the court, basically focused on whether Reed’s Twitter account was to be considered as personal or official.

Last Friday, Judge John A. Ross issued Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order, that, among other things, looks more broadly into whether a social media account operated by an official is a government account.

On that point, the court found that this is not true of every account – but that “essential character” of Twitter accounts is not fixed as they can turn into one by becoming “an organ of official business.”

And in Reed’s case, this was true, among other things, because the handle, @PresReed, referred to his elected office, while the account was used to post his office’s press releases and inform constituents, the judge wrote, noting that the tweets published on there showed no evidence that Reed’s primary usage if it was for private communication with friends and family (which was his argument).

But that argument left the court unimpressed all the more so since in 2019, Reed’s account got embedded in the city’s official website, using the city’s resources, and providing a live feed of his tweets on the site.

The court decision states that the nature of the account at the time it was created in 2009, i.e., whether it was private then, is irrelevant to the case, since “by the time it was embedded within the city’s website, the account had clearly evolved into a ‘tool of governance.'”

And this means that the account was now a public forum, from which constituents cannot be excluded and discriminated against (blocked) because of their viewpoint on an issue.

The court believes that Felts was blocked because of the content of her tweet, and said this action was inconsistent with the First Amendment as viewpoint discrimination.

As for Reed’s claim that the “#aldergeddon” should be interpreted as a violent intent, the ruling was clear that this “in no way” justified the act of blocking Felts, since the hashtag was used by journalists and elected officials alike “to tag content related to the Board of Aldermen.”

Instead, the implication is that Reed was simply censoring criticism he was receiving as an elected official, on an account he used in that capacity, as a tool of governance.

Felts’ filing requested declaratory and injunctive relief and nominal damages. In view of the fact that she eventually got unblocked by Reed, the injunction request became moot, however, despite his resignation from the Board, the court rejected Vollmer’s motion to dismiss her claim for declaratory relief, nominal damages, costs, and attorneys’ fees.

This means that Felts received judgment in her favor regarding the claim for declaratory relief, and was awarded a symbolic sum of one dollar in nominal damages because her constitutional rights were violated.

Legal observers note that this decision is one of many around the same issue – whether an official should be allowed to block constituents – and that different cases have produced different answers to this question, depending on how courts interpret the facts presented to them.

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