INDIANAPOLIS – The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana has filed a lawsuit against City of Franklin Mayor Steve Barnett for blocking an individual from the Mayor’s Facebook page.
The plaintiff, William Reynolds, was blocked from viewing or commenting on Mayor Barnett’s Facebook page after posting a video of the Mayor participating in a Black Lives Matter rally in May 2020.
“As our democracy moves online, access to online forums is just as important as the ability to attend and petition our elected representatives at a town hall meeting,” said Gavin M. Rose, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Indiana. “When our client was blocked from accessing the Mayor’s page, he was also denied the ability to view and comment on official updates and other matters of public concern. The right of Mr. Reynolds to express himself is a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and a public online forum maintained by the Mayor of Franklin is no exception.”
The suit, Reynolds v. Barnett, filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, asserts Mayor Barnett violated Mr. Reynolds’s First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution by denying him the right to comment, or even view, information available only on the Mayor’s Facebook page. While the Mayor’s Facebook page is nominally a “personal page,” it functions as an official government account because the Mayor routinely uses the page to post about official activities, events, and other issues of relevance to his constituents.
Mr. Reynolds has temporarily relocated to Kentucky with the intent of returning to Franklin.
During the rally, Mayor Barnett carried a “Black Lives Matter” poster and led a crowd in a “Black Lives Matter” chant, which was included on a video recorded by Mr. Reynolds. Mr. Reynolds subsequently posted the video to Facebook and tagged Mayor Barnett in the post. Mayor Barnett promptly untagged himself, and when Mr. Reynolds restored the tag, the Mayor responded by blocking him from the page – hence preventing Mr. Reynolds from tagging, commenting, or even viewing the page’s content.
The lawsuit requests that the court order Mayor Barnett to unblock Mr. Reynolds from the Mayor’s Facebook page and prohibit Mayor Barnett from similar actions in the future based on content or viewpoint.
In 2019, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the interactive portion of a public official’s Facebook page is a “public forum,” so an official cannot block people from it because of the opinions they hold.