Tanner Rhinehart of Newark, Ohio, taunted the local police on their Facebook page after they failed to capture him on an arrest warrant. Eventually they caught up to him and taunted him right back. Here’s the bodycam footage.
Here are some screenshots of the social media interactions:
I often get the question, can public officials block me or delete my messages on social media? Isn’t that a First Amendment violation? Well, some more West Virginia news today: the Fayette County WV Sheriff’s Department has just deleted its Facebook page following negative comments they’ve received following a local incident. Here’s what the sheriff said about why he did it:
“Sorry, but I’m getting bashed and getting messages. People are just so rude and unfair….”
He said they would just delete the negative comments, but they did that once before and got sued, so the only option is to delete the page.
“We deleted comments before and got in trouble for that,” he said.
Why is the public so upset at this sheriff’s department? And what is the law on this? Can an official government social media page block you or delete your comments?
The WV ACLU has previously been involved with this issue. They actually sent a letter to the members of the WV legislature about this, attempting to warn legislators from violating First Amendment rights on social media.
So here’s the basic law. The First Amendment protects the right to criticize public officials – period. N.Y. Times v. Sullivan. But it’s not limited to newspapers. The SCOTUS has referred to social media as a “modern public square.” Packingham v. North Carolina.
When the government provides a forum for speech, such as a Facebook page, or a Youtube channel, the government actor may not exclude certain speech or actors from that forum on the basis of their viewpoints.
In 2019, the Fourth Circuit, which is applicable here in West Virginia, held that an elected official’s Facebook page on which she discussed upcoming events and community issues constituted a “public forum,” and that the official engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination when she banned a constituent from her Facebook page. That was Davison v. Randall. The Court found that the official acted under color of law when she banned the constituent because she treated the Facebook page as a “tool of governance.”
Similarly, I once sued a notorious WV state senator for an under color of law civil rights violation due to a rant about a constituent on his Facebook page. I’ll link that video if you want to watch it.
Thus, it’s now settled case law in the Fourth Circuit that a constituent’s constitutional rights extend to comments made on a public official’s social media page. An official may not block protected speech on an account dedicated to their official duties. Officials may, however, delete speech that is not considered protected under the Constitution, such as speech that makes a true and immediate threat to another person, incites others to imminently violate the law, or contains obscene language, as narrowly defined by the SCOTUS in Miller v. California.
This is not limited to social media accounts that are officially noted or categorized as an “official” page of a public official. This can also extend to a public official’s personal social media accounts, if that account is used to discuss public matters or for other public purposes. This is what happened in my WV State Senate case. The courts will look at the content, not just the title.
Here, given the fact that the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook page is (or rather “was”) both in title and substance, and official account, there is no question that they could not delete comments and posters based on their viewpoints. At least not unless they contained speech that is not protected, such as threats or the narrow types of obscenities, which mind you, as far as police go, as I’ve discussed in prior videos, “F the police” has been found to be protected speech.
So yes, if a law enforcement agency does not want to have their feelings hurt, or is upset by comments they’re receiving, they can delete the page. But they cannot delete viewpoints.
I want to expand on the legal issues presented in yesterday’s video a little more. Yesterday I posted a video on the issue of warning fellow motorists about a speed trap via flashing the lights on your car. If that is protected speech, and as a result of that protected speech, you get pulled over, harassed, arrested, or so on, at that point you may have not just a Fourth Amendment violation, but also a First Amendment violation. More specifically, the cause of action in federal court is called First Amendment Retaliation. It’s a violation of your First Amendment rights to suffer retaliation as a consequence of exercising your rights. This area of the law can be extremely murky. But it can also be straightforward. Like everything else in federal constitutional law, it’s highly fact-dependent.
This can be illustrated by a case I litigated, which pre-dated my Youtube channel, so you won’t find it there – at least before now. Imagine that a private citizen, riding in his work delivery truck, through the West Virginia countryside, sees a vehicle come barreling around him on a stretch of road with a double yellow line, going into a curve. This is filmed by the citizen with his cell phone. He recognizes the vehicle as that of his state senator. He then posts the video to social media, showing and denouncing the senator’s actions to his social media friends. But the senator has his own social media following, which is exponentially larger. In response to the citizen’s video, that senator with a large social media following goes on a rant against the citizen, calling him names, and also then identifying his place of employment – doxxing him, essentially. But he didn’t stop there.
Large numbers of § 1983 complaints allege free speech retaliation claims. These claims frequently give rise to difficult legal issues and sharply contested factual issues. The majority of these claims are asserted by present and former public employees. First Amendment retaliation claims are also asserted by government contractors, individuals subject to criminal prosecution, prisoners, and landowners, among others.
As a general matter, public officials may not respond to “constitutionally protected activity with conduct or speech that would chill or adversely affect [t]his protected activity.” Balt. Sun Co. v. Ehrlich , 437 F.3d 410, 416 (4th Cir. 2006). That is so “even if the act, when taken for different reasons, would have been proper.” ACLU of Md., Inc. v. Wicomico Cty ., 999 F.2d 780, 785 (4th Cir. 1993).
To succeed on a First Amendment retaliation claim, a plaintiff must show: “(1) [the] speech was protected, (2) the alleged retaliatory action adversely affected [the] protected speech, and (3) a causal relationship [existed] between the protected speech and the retaliation.” Raub v. Campbell , 785 F.3d 876, 885 (4th Cir. 2015).
However, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a federal right by a person acting under color of state law. Public officials can theoretically act both under color of law, as well as a private actor not under color of law. The defendant acts under color of state law if he is “a state actor or ha[s] a sufficiently close relationship with state actors such that . . . [he] is engaged in the state’s actions.” Cox v. Duke Energy Inc., 876 F.3d 625, 632 (4th Cir. 2017). Put simply, the defendant acts under color of state law when he “exercise[s] power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because [he] is clothed with the authority of state law.” Davison v. Randall, 912 F.3d 666, 679 (4th Cir. 2019) (internal quotation marks omitted).
“[T]here is no specific formula for defining state action under this standard.” Rather, Courts evaluate “the totality of the circumstances.” Holly v. Scott, 434 F.3d 287, 292 (4th Cir. 2006). “If a defendant’s purportedly private actions are linked to events which rose out of his official status, the nexus between the two can play a role in establishing that he acted under color of state law.” In addition, “[w]here the sole intention of a public official is to suppress speech critical of his conduct of official duties or fitness for public office, his actions are more fairly attributable to the state.”
In my case, this was the big issue. The senator’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss. The federal court ended up denying that motion to dismiss, ordering the case to proceed. The Court pointed out that the state senator posted his response video on his official campaign Facebook page that he was using to both share information with his constituents, as well as to campaign for Congress. Thus the social media account generating the alleged retaliation was closely connected to official activities.
Using that official account and social media following, the Court concluded that an inference was supported that the state senator was using his official position to pressure my client’s employer to fire him. Moreover, the Court found a causal connection between the response video, as well as the phone call to the employer, and my client being fired. He ordered the case to proceed and a subsequent settlement ensued.