Appeals Court Holds that Government Official Who Blocked Critic from Facebook Page Violated First Amendment

January 07, 2019

A county official who blocked a critic from her Facebook Page violated the First Amendment, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed today, in the first decision by an appellate court addressing the applicability of the First Amendment to social media accounts run by public officials. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University argued the appeal on behalf of Brian Davison, a Virginia resident who had been temporarily banned from the Facebook Page of the chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.

“Today’s decision confirms that the First Amendment prohibits government censorship on new communications platforms,” said Katie Fallow, senior staff attorney at the Knight Institute, who argued the case on appeal. “Public officials, who increasingly use social media accounts as public forums to foster speech and debate among their constituents, have no greater license to suppress dissent online than they do offline.” 

Brian Davison filed a First Amendment lawsuit in 2016, after Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall blocked him for posting comments that criticized members of the county school board. Davison won that lawsuit, with the trial court ruling that Randall had unconstitutionally barred him from her Facebook Page based on viewpoint. Randall appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments in the case in September 2018.

In its opinion, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling that aspects of Randall’s Facebook Page “bear the hallmarks of a public forum” and that her decision to ban Davison constituted “black-letter viewpoint discrimination.”

This is the first court of appeals ruling on whether the First Amendment applies to government-run social media sites.  In May 2018, a federal trial court in New York held in a case brought by the Knight Institute that President Trump’s blocking of critics from his Twitter account violated the First Amendment. The Trump administration has appealed that decision, and the case is currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

“The First Amendment forecloses government officials from suppressing speech on the basis of viewpoint,” said Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s Executive Director. “With so many public officials using social media as a means of communicating with their constituents, the Fourth Circuit’s thoughtful ruling will undoubtedly have broad impact.”

Read the decision here.

For more information, contact the Knight Institute at info@knightcolumbia.org.

About the Knight Institute

The Knight First Amendment Institute defends the freedoms of speech and the press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education. Its aim is to promote a system of free expression that is open and inclusive, that broadens and elevates public discourse, and that fosters creativity, accountability, and effective self-government.