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Air Force not allowed to ban people from official social media pages, DOJ says

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass speaks during a visit at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, June 22, 2022. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Mikaela Smith)
August 09, 2022

The Justice Department agreed last week that the U.S. Air Force can no longer remove posts or ban users from commenting on official social media accounts based on their opinions. The decision comes after a retired officer posted comments critical of the Air Force on Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass’ official Facebook page. The comments were deleted and the officer was banned from commenting again, so he sued the branch for alleged First Amendment violations. 

Retired Air Force command pilot Maj. Richard Rynearson’s access to an official Air Force Facebook page was restored last week after the branch agreed to change its policy on social media bans, according to Terence J. Pell, president of The Center for Individual Rights, who represented Rynearson.

Moving forward, the Air Force will not be allowed to deny users access to official social media accounts based on their opinions, even if their perspectives are critical of the military. 

The policy change was part of a court-approved settlement between Rynearson and the Justice Department, concluding a lawsuit Rynearson had filed in August last year. 

“Thanks to the efforts of a veteran pilot, the Air Force reversed a misguided effort to ban online criticism of its policies by members of the public,” Pell wrote. “Justice Department lawyers have agreed that Air Force websites and pages won’t remove posts or ban users based on their point of view.”

In November 2020, CMSAF Joanne Bass had posted on her official Facebook page encouraging users to think about the things for which they were thankful. Rynearson commented that he was thankful that other U.S. military branches were focused on warfare while the Air Force spent its time “making sure we all feel good about ourselves” and that “nobody is offended or feels like a victim.”

Pell wrote that Rynearson “believed that Air Force leadership was prioritizing cultural sensitivity issues to such a degree, it was corrupting the strength and character of the Air Force, and that our military leaders had become hostile to critics of these policy directions.”

Sgt. Bass wasn’t a fan of Rynearson’s opinion and quickly deleted his comments from the page. She also banned him from commenting again. 

Rynearson subsequently contacted her office in an effort to have the ban removed, arguing that it violated his First Amendment rights. Bass never responded, and after repeated attempts to contact her, Rynearson sued the Air Force. 

Pell wrote that the Center for Individual Rights argued the ban unlawfully restricted Rynearson’s freedom of speech and noted that “courts have consistently ruled that official government social-media pages are public forums, which means that the government may not deny anyone access for expressing a viewpoint.”

“Social media has become an important way for citizens to engage in free and open discussion with government officials. As new social-media platforms emerge and others gain audience and influence, it will be vital for the courts to reaffirm the rights of individuals, regardless of their point of view, to engage freely on government-run web pages,” Pell wrote.