Hamlin

THIN SKIN AWARD, PART 3

It’s been a while since I gave out a thin skin award.  As readers know, the award goes to any public servant who can’t take the heat that comes with the job.  And a recent decision gives us a new recipient.

He is Lewis Reed, the former President of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen (and probably a Cardinals fan, which makes sticking it to him that much more enjoyable).  Here’s a piece from the Technology & Marketing Law Blog that gives a nice summary of his case.  To summarize the case even further, Reed set up a Twitter account that he used for a number of official purposes.  A follower put up a critical tweet, with a “#aldergeddon” and Reed blocked her.  Reed used the ridiculous excuse that the hashtag threatened violence.  I guess that was based on the fact that “aldergeddon” is a play on words of “Armageddon” and somehow that translated to some sort of call to violence.  As I said, ridiculous.

A federal court in Missouri agreed with my assessment, and found that Reed violated the First Amendment rights of the constituent who posted the critical tweet.  Here’s the court’s conclusion:

“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.”

As the court’s conclusion suggests, this is not just a case of a thin skinned public servant.  The underlying issue – can a public official set up a Twitter account, use it for official business and then block posters who make critical comments – is a really important one.  While many courts have agreed with the Reed court’s analysis, others have found ways to avoid the issue.  Let’s hope the majority rule makes it clear that censorship violates the First Amendment.