United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Holds That Politicians Who Block Citizens on Official Social Media are in Violation of the First Amendment

On Monday, January 7, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that Phyllis Randall violated the First Amendment rights of Brian Davison when she blocked Davison for twelve hours in February 2016 from her official Facebook Page as the chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.

Davison’s case against Randall began when Davison attended a town hall meeting in which Randall was involved. Davison made some criticisms of the School Board’s behavior in approving financial transactions during the meeting. Shortly thereafter, Randall made a post on her official Facebook Page as the chair of the Loudon County Board of Supervisors regarding the meeting. Davison left a comment on Randall’s post regarding the meeting. Randall deleted Davison’s post and banned him from her Facebook Page for twelve hours. Davison filed a lawsuit alleging that Randall violated his First Amendment rights. Although Davison was successful at trial, Randall appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit found that Randall’s Facebook Page was self-identified as a “government official” page that provided official county contact information. Further, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the lower court in that Randall was acting “under the color of state law,” a requirement for bringing a civil rights claim under Section 1983 of the United States Code, since Randall “created and administered the Chair’s Facebook Page to further her duties as a municipal official.” The appeals court further found that Randall’s banning of Davison was “linked to events which arose out of h[er] official status” since Davison left his comment on a post Randall made on her official Facebook Page with regard to the town hall meeting.

The Fourth Circuit also held that a governmental social media page constitutes a public forum since “aspects of the Chair’s Facebook Page bear the hallmarks of a public forum.” Randall argued that forum analysis should not apply to this case since Facebook is a private website and not public property susceptible to forum analysis. The court disagreed, citing cases in which the Supreme Court held that forum analysis can be applied to private property when said property is dedicated to public use. The court further cited cases in which private property was constituted a “public forum when, for example, the government retained substantial control over the property under regulation or by contract.” The court refused to establish a bright-line rule. After finding the Facebook Page a public forum, the court did not perform public forum analysis since the court found the discrimination in question amounted to viewpoint discrimination, which is expressly prohibited in all forums.

Additional Reading

Davison v. Randall, No. 17-2002 (4th Cir. 2019)

Court: Politicians who block citizens on social media violate 1st Amendment, Ars Technica (January 7, 2019)