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Woman sues a Kansas city and mayor over deleted Facebook posts on COVID-19 response

Facebook Inc. said it has removed 2.5 million posts since March 1 offering masks, sanitizers, cleaning wipes and Covid-19 test kits, in an attempt to prevent users from price-gouging or selling counterfeit and dangerous products. (Dreamstime/TNS)

A woman is suing the mayor and government of a Kansas town, accusing them of violating free-speech rights by squelching social-media criticism over their response to the coronavirus.

Tracy Chambless says in the lawsuit that Scott City and its mayor, Everett Green, have sought to “control the public discourse on topics of public concern, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s response thereto.”

Green declined to comment on the lawsuit last week, saying he hasn’t had a chance to consult with a lawyer that will be provided by the city’s insurance carrier.

Scott City is about 200 miles northwest of Wichita in western Kansas. It is the hometown of former Wichita State University basketball star Ron Baker.

Chambless’ lawsuit claims Scott City and the mayor “engaged in viewpoint discrimination by removing public comments critical of the city and its agencies” from Facebook pages — both the mayor’s own page and a local news page he took control of when his own wasn’t getting enough views.

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“The Mayor and City utiliz(ed) social media to ‘delete’ citizens’ posts they felt were ‘wrong’ regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and replac(ed) these posts with self-serving public announcement videos regarding the city’s pandemic response,” the lawsuit alleges.

It’s not the first time Scott City, population 3,800, has been in the news over coronavirus.

Police there made statewide headlines when they arrested a man March 31 on suspicion of COVID-19-related terrorism.

The man, 31, was alleged to have told an 11-year-old girl at a Dollar General store that he would give her the coronavirus and then deliberately coughed in her face.

In addition to deleting complaints about the coronavirus response, Chambless also claims the city unlawfully removed her and others’ comments alleging that the city’s Police Department overreacted to a domestic dispute involving her son earlier this month.

The suit claims that at the police chief’s request, criticism of the department was removed and then replaced by a video in which the mayor defends the police response.

The law at issue tests the frontier of what is and isn’t government censorship in the digital age — an issue that has plagued politicians ranging from President Trump to a county supervisor in Virginia.

So far, two federal appellate courts have ruled that it can be a violation of the First Amendment for public officials to block critics from their pages.

The best-known case involved Trump, with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a lower-court ruling that found the president had improperly blocked users from his Twitter feed, where he often discusses and even announces public policy.

“The salient issues in this case arise from the decision of the President to use a relatively new type of social media platform to conduct official business and to interact with the public,” the court ruling said.

While the judges were careful to steer clear of whether office holders can block criticism on purely personal accounts, “We do conclude, however, that the First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees.”

In a 2017 case, the Fourth Circuit appellate court concluded that the chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors in Loudon County, Va., Phyllis J. Randall, had violated a constituent’s rights when she briefly blocked him from her Facebook page.

The court ruled the supervisor’s page “operates as a forum for speech” and “viewpoint discrimination in the administration of that forum violates the First Amendment.”

The Scott City suit also objects to limitations “barring citizens from participating in City Council meetings” since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

After earlier disagreements with Chambless, a frequent critic of city government and its policies, the mayor proposed and the city implemented a practice that residents who want to complain have to put it in writing and schedule a time to appear in person before the council, the lawsuit alleges.

As a coronavirus precaution, the public hasn’t been allowed to attend council meetings since April 6 and no alternative format for public comment has been provided, the lawsuit says.

“The city has required (Chambless) to ‘appear’ but now has instituted a policy that prevents the public from appearing,” the lawsuit says.

Since the pandemic started, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has issued opinions stating that it’s OK for local government boards to meet without allowing an audience, but they must still provide a reasonable opportunity for public comment.

Different government bodies have taken differing approaches to that.

Sedgwick County accepts online and written comments up until 5 p.m. the day before a meeting.

The Wichita City Council also accepts written comments, along with providing the opportunity for residents to speak to the council live from a teleconferencing site at the Century II Convention and Performing Arts Center.

Wichita adopted that process after its first try — having people comment live on Facebook and YouTube — degenerated into a lengthy online brawl between competing factions.

The Scott City lawsuit seeks a court order prohibiting the mayor or other city officials from deleting or blocking comments on social media and to overturn the limitations on comments at council meetings.

It also seeks unspecified monetary damages of more than $75,000.

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© 2020 The Wichita Eagle