EFF, together with Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, filed an amicus brief urging the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to recognize a First Amendment right to access the social media pages of government officials, and to comment on those pages when the pages are generally open to public comment.
In 2017, the Hunt County Sheriff’s Office announced it would be monitoring its Facebook page more strictly, and that “ANY post filled with foul language, hate speech of all types and comments that are considered inappropriate will be removed and the user banned.” Deanna Robinson, a resident of Hunt County, commented that the policy censored lawful speech and challenged the Sheriff’s right to censor comments on a government social media page. In response, the Sheriff’s Office removed her comment and banned her from the Facebook page. The Sheriff’s Office also allegedly deleted other public comments critical of the policy.
Robinson brought suit demanding that the Sheriff’s Office remove her ban from the Facebook page, restore her deleted comments, and refrain from deleting comments or banning individuals for merely expressing criticism of the Sheriff’s Office.
In its amicus brief, EFF explained that when government offices use social media pages in a manner that allow the public generally to communicate with the government and comment on its policies, the government has established a “public forum”—that is, a forum in which the First Amendment sharply limits the government’s ability to impose content- and viewpoint-based restrictions on speech. EFF’s brief argued that the way the government actually uses the social media pages is the key factor in making this determination, and not the labels the government places on them.
The Fifth Circuit agreed, and made clear that the Sheriff’s Office violated the law when it discriminated against Robinson’s speech based on her political viewpoint.