Brief #74—Civil Rights

Policy Summary
Phyllis Randall is an elected official and holds the position of Chair for Loudon County, Virginia, Board of Supervisors. In this role, Ms. Randall opened a Facebook page titled “Chair Phyllis J. Randall’s” Facebook page which contained content that related to her official duties as Chair for the Board of Supervisors. (Ms. Randall also has a separate personal Facebook page for personal and private use). Ms. Randall classified her “Chair Facebook” page as a “government official” page.

On February 3, 2016, Brian Davison, a private citizen, attended a Loudon town hall meeting that also included Ms. Randall and the Loudon County School Board. Later on that evening, Ms. Randall posted information from the meeting which Mr. Davison then responded to with comments he posted on Ms. Randall’s “Chair Facebook” page. Ms. Randall saw that the comments were about accusations of conflict of interests by members of the board. Ms. Randall decided to delete her Facebook meeting post and Mr. Davison’s comments on her post. She then decided to ban Mr. Davison from the “Chair Facebook” page.

Mr. Davison brought a lawsuit against Ms. Randall in the federal district court for the Eastern District of Virginia which ruled Ms. Randall violated Mr. Davison’s Free Speech rights under the First Amendment. Ms. Randall appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals which ended up affirming the trial court’s ruling against Ms. Randall. LEARN MORE

This case is the first case decided at the Court of Appeals level that has addressed the issue of how elected officials can treat public criticism of their official duties on social media platforms and the First Amendment concerns connected to that. The case will likely be influential in the coming years because of the number of politicians who use social media to interact with their constituents and conduct government policy, most notably President Donald Trump on his Twitter account. The key takeaway from this opinion is how the court determined that social media platforms as used by elected public officials “bear the hallmarks of a public forum.” Under this category, the government (or an elected official) cannot restrict speech on their official government social media accounts based on their content without a compelling state interest. What Ms. Randall attempted to do in her case was censor speech that could have been of interest to the public because of their embarrassing implications to herself and the rest of the Board. Quite simply, this was viewpoint discrimination and has been prohibited by the First Amendment long before social media platforms were developed. Katie Fallow, a senior staff attorney at the Knight Institute, said it best when she said “Public officials…have no greater license to suppress dissent online than they do offline.” The rules regarding Free Speech and the First Amendment and social media platforms are still being developed but this case sends a strong signal that the First Amendment will likely have a strong role to play in the development of free speech rules on social media in the years and decades to come. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE

Engagement Resources:

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact

Photo by unsplash-logoROBIN WORRALL

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