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A citizen who criticized the COVID-19 safety protocols of a public school system can continue with her First Amendment claim that she was blocked from school officials’ Facebook and Twitter pages in retaliation for her protected speech. A federal judge held that, at this early stage of the litigation, her First Amendment claim survived the defendants’ motion to dismiss.
In November 2020, Christie Scarborough posted comments on the Frederick County (Md.) Public Schools’ webpage criticizing school officials and their policies regarding Covid-19, masks, and the re-opening of the schools.
Steve Edwards, head of communication for the school system, allegedly deleted her comments and blocked her from making further ones. Scarborough also alleged that she was blocked from the Twitter pages of FCPS Superintendent David Sovine and Assistant Superintendent James Angelo, and that it was because of her viewpoints critical of the school district.
Scarborough sued Edwards, Sovine, Angelo, and FCPS, alleging a violation of her First Amendment free-speech rights, among other claims.
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss.
U.S. District Judge Thomas T. Cullen determined that Scarborough adequately stated a First Amendment claim against Edwards and the Frederick County Public Schools. “As alleged in her Second Amended Complaint, the speech at issue consists of her Facebook comments about FCPS's COVID-19 protocols,” Cullen wrote. “This type of public expression … falls squarely within the ambit of First Amendment protection.”
Cullen also determined that Scarborough had adequately identified that she was blocked from a social media page of a governmental entity. He wrote that “the Facebook page at issue here is an arm of the government entity itself.”
Cullen concluded that Scarborough’s allegations “strongly support the inference that Defendants took these actions because they did not like what Scarborough had said about their policies, or, to put it in First Amendment terms, because they were impermissibly motivated by a desire to suppress a particular point of view.”
Cullen also refused to dismiss Scarborough’s First Amendment claims over being blocked from the Twitter pages. Here, Cullen found persuasive the 2nd Circuit’s decision in First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Trump, where the federal appeals court ruled that then-President Donald Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking critics from commenting on his tweets.
Cullen wrote that “Scarborough has sufficiently alleged that they engaged in viewpoint discrimination.” He also determined that she “adequately alleges that both administrators operate their Twitter accounts in their official capacities as the chief administrators for the school system.”
Scarborough may not ultimately prevail in her First Amendment lawsuit, but the federal district court decision sends another message to public officials that they must take care before blocking critics from their official social media pages.
David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let The Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech(2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).