Court Reminds St. Louis City Council That Blocking Taxpayers On Social Media Violates 1st Amendment

Court Reminds St. Louis City Council That Blocking Taxpayers On Social Media Violates 1st Amendment

from the blocking-stuff-you-don’t-like-is-unconstitutional dept

No matter what you may have heard on certain social media outlets, this is how the First Amendment actually works.

Free speech “heroes” can freely curb your speech. The government, however, may not. So, if you’re a government account operating on social media services, when you fuck around, you find out. This decision [PDF] — targeting St. Louis lawmakers — reminds everyone of these uncomfortable facts. (h/t Courthouse News Service)

Social media platforms are public squares… at least as far as public servants are concerned. You may not like what your constituents have to say, but you’re not allowed to silence them. That’s what a Missouri federal court has declared, following an absurd amount of precedent that should have made it clear to the city of St. Louis (as personified by Lewis Reed, the president of the city’s Board of Alderman) that blocking a resident’s Twitter account from interacting with the city’s official account was unconstitutional.

As the order notes, the jury trial over the constitutional issues got off to a somewhat strange start… at least in terms of a civil lawsuit.

Reed appeared at trial with counsel and, when called to testify, invoked the Fifth Amendment.

To be sure, invoking the Fifth isn’t an admission of guilt. But considering the only thing at stake was a court-ordered unblocking of St. Louis resident Sarah Felts’ Twitter account, this move does seem a little strange. Given this turn of events, the court reached a compromise: Felts could submit a list of questions for the (now-former — he retired two years after this lawsuit was filed) Board of Alderman president to be answered after the trial was concluded.

Everything at issue here went down fairly innocuously. And by that I mean it was rookie night on, where people said things and other people reacted terribly by not understanding how swiftly antagonistic flotsam is swept away by the tyranny of auto refresh. Read on and be amused by the give-and-take that ultimately decided to be the equivalent of a palace coup by the Board of Aldermen president.

In March 2009, Reed created a public Twitter account (the “Account”) to “put out information for people to … let them know what I’m up to.” At times, Reed changed the Account’s handle to indicate his candidacy for office, but between March 2009 and June of 2020, the most frequently used handle was @PresReed.

On his Twitter page, Reed described himself as “Father of 4 great kids, husband, public servant, life long democrat, proud St. Louis City resident, President of the Board of Aldermen.”

Any member of the public could view Reed’s posts and either “like,” reply, or “retweet” his posts.

On January 26, 2019, a Twitter account with the handle @ActionSTL tweeted: “Reeds asked to clarify his position on @CLOSEWorkhouse. He says we need to rework out [sic] court system. Eventually says yes, he does support the demand to close the workhouse but we need to change the messaging around it.” Action St. Louis, a local, black-led advocacy organization, operates the @ActionSTL Account.

Plaintiff responded to Action St. Louis’ tweet stating: “What do you mean by ‘change the messaging around #CloseTheWorkhouse,’ @PresReed? #STLBOA #aldergeddon2019 #WokeVoterSTL.” The issue of closing the St. Louis Workhouse, a medium security institution and one of two jails in the City, was a subject of political debate in January 2019. Plaintiff was among those advocating for the Board of Aldermen to take action to close the Workhouse, as was Action St. Louis.

Plaintiff believed Reed’s statement, as reported by Action St. Louis, that “we need to change the messaging around closing the Workhouse” was an attempt to avoid dealing with the underlying issue. Plaintiff sent her tweet to ask Reed what he meant by “change the messaging” and signal to other Twitter users that they could reach Reed via Twitter.

Later in the evening of January 26, 2019, Plaintiff attempted to access Reed’s Twitter profile page and learned she had been blocked by Reed, meaning she could no longer view his tweets, or otherwise interact with his Account.

According to Reed, the board president blocked the plaintiff because he believed Felts’ question (and her instructions to contact Reed via Twitter) somehow “implied violence” against him and the Board of Aldermen. No evidence was presented that any threats — violent or otherwise — followed this interaction.

On top of that, the court notes that Reed intertwined his Twitter account with official business in 2019. The city’s website was altered to include a link to Reed’s Twitter account. This was followed by an embed of his Twitter feed. This feed remained live on the city’s website until Reed was sued by Sarah Felts, at which point it was removed, presumably by a city IT employee. Felts’ Twitter account remained blocked until after she filed the lawsuit in early 2021.

So, Reed made it clear his Twitter account was also the Board president’s account. And the victim of his careless blocking wasn’t freed from this incursion on her First Amendment rights until after she engaged in litigation. Given this series of events, it’s not unsurprising (former) Board president Reed would invoke the Fifth when testifying in front of a jury of the people he was supposed to be serving.

The opinion recounts several times Reed’s Twitter account was used to engage in city business, citing several statements related to legislation, city policy changes, and Reed’s meetings with other local and federal politicians.

All of this indicates the account run by Reed was engaged in government business and used by Reed in his position as the president of the city’s Board of Alderman. So, there’s really no question his blocking of Sarah Felts violated her rights.

At all relevant times, Reed was the final decisionmaker for communications, including the use of social media, for the Office of the President of the Board of Aldermen. At or near the time Plaintiff was initially blocked, Reed’s public Twitter account had evolved into a tool of governance. In any event, by the time the Account was embedded into the City’s website in April 2019, while Plaintiff remained blocked, the Account was being operated by Reed under color of law as an official governmental account. The continued blocking of Plaintiff based on the content of her tweet is impermissible viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment. Thus, Plaintiff is entitled to judgment in her favor on her remaining claim for declaratory relief.

That is how the First Amendment actually works. The government can’t block your Twitter account simply because it doesn’t like what you’re saying. That happened here. And, while the lawsuit concludes with only a $1.00 reward in nominal damages, it does make things better for St. Louis residents, as well as those experiencing the same sort of government bullshit elsewhere in this federal circuit. It’s another ruling that clearly states government officials can’t engage in unwarranted blocking of people officials would rather not hear from. Elected officials represent and serve everyone in their jurisdictions. They can’t constitutionally pick and choose who they want to engage with.

Filed Under: 1st amendment, blocking, free speech, government, lewis reed, missouri, politicians, sarah felts, social media