ACLU files lawsuit against Jefferson commissioner for blocking constituent online
The ACLU of West Virginia has filed a lawsuit against a Jefferson County Commissioner who blocked a constituent on social media for violating their First Amendment rights. (Chris McGrath | Getty Images)
The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia has filed a lawsuit against a county commissioner it says violated the First Amendment by blocking a constituent from accessing his social media account because of her views.
The ACLU of West Virginia filed the complaint against Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Stolipher Thursday in Jefferson County Circuit Court.
According to the complaint, Harpers Ferry resident Christy Stadig was blocked from viewing the Facebook account Steve Stolipher County Commissioner after she used the page to comment on and share an article from Facebook page Jefferson County Perspective regarding a recent financial audit of the commission.
Stolipher then shared the post with the comment: “Mark Everhart the sole manager of [Jefferson County Perspective] does not like it when you go against his false narrative. That is why [it’s] important for everyone to read the auditor’s report themselves,” the complaint says.ACLU complaint against Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Stolipher
After Stadig commented, asking Stolipher to explain what part of Everhart’s comments were false, she got a Facebook notification the commissioner had responded. When she went to see his response, her original comment and his response had been deleted.
She went on to comment again, asking Stolipher why her comment was deleted. She eventually “advised” the commissioner that deleting comments is “not a good look for a public servant,” the complaint says.
Less than two hours later, she discovered she was blocked from the page, the complaint says.
Stadig later confronted Stolipher at a public meeting and asked to be unblocked, according to the ACLU, but the man laughed at her request.
“The right to critique public officials lies at the very heart of the First Amendment,” Aubrey Sparks, the ACLU of West Virginia’s legal director said in the release. “Federal court rulings binding on West Virginia have found that the official social media accounts of government officials and agencies are public forums. We look forward to a ruling clarifying the matter at the state court level as well.”
According to the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, courts broadly recognize that public officials using social media accounts as public forums violate the First Amendment when they block constituents because of their view points.
Alexia Ramirez, a legal fellow with the organization, said public officials’ use of social media is not always subject to the First Amendment, but is subject when used as an extension of their official duties or office.
“Most courts use a holistic, fact intensive test to look at how a public official uses their social media account to determine if it constitutes… state action,” Ramirez said. “And what that boils down to is that when it rises to state action, which these accounts often do because public officials are increasingly choosing to harness the power of social media to perform the essential functions of their job, such as communicating with their constituents, and other members of the public in service of their official duties, the First Amendment does apply to these accounts.”
The institute has an online guide for public officials about the use of social media.
In 2017, the Knight Institute sued former President Donald Trump and his aides in federal court for blocking seven people from his Twitter account @realDonaldTrump after they criticized him.
The suit argued that Trump’s social media account is a “public forum” under the First Amendment and the government may not exclude people based on their views.
While the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling that Trump’s practice of blocking critics on social media violated the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the case without addressing its merits. The Trump administration had asked the court to hear the case, but abandoned its request right before President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear two cases this fall concerning public officials who block critics on social media.
Stadig’s lawsuit asks the court to find that Stolipher violated her First Amendment rights, enter an injunction requiring him to unblock Stadig from Facebook and prohibit him from blocking her from official social media discussions in the future based on her viewpoint. It also asks for attorneys fees.
Stolipher did not return an email seeking comment.
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