LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Members of an atheist group have a “fair chance of prevailing” in their lawsuit against an Arkansas state senator whom they accuse of violating their free speech rights by blocking them from leaving comments on his work-related Facebook and Twitter posts, a judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker on Monday allowed the American Atheists group’s lawsuit against Republican state Sen. Jason Rapert to proceed to trial, though she denied the group’s request to issue an injunction that would have forced Rapert to immediately unblock the group, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
“Rapert has repeatedly called our lawsuit against him ‘frivolous.’ (The) decision should put an end to that ridiculous claim,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, the attorney for the atheist group. “The Arkansans Rapert has blocked will get their day in court, and we have every confidence we’ll prevail.”
The plaintiffs argue that as an elected official, Rapert’s posts are a public forum that should be accessible to them.
Rapert argues that the First Amendment also protects his right as a private citizen to shut out those who respond with personal attacks or bullying.
The judge, however, wrote in her decision that Rapert’s accounts rely on the power and prestige of his state office and were created to perform actual or apparent duties of that office
While Rapert maintains several Twitter and Facebook accounts, only one account on each platform is at issue in the lawsuit: @JasonRapert on Twitter and the “Sen. Jason Rapert” Facebook page.
Baker noted that Rapert uses those accounts in his capacity as a state official. She said she thinks the plaintiffs have a fair chance of prevailing on their argument that Rapert “engaged in viewpoint discrimination when he blocked plaintiffs on Twitter account and Facebook page,” noting that the state prohibits officials from excluding viewpoints with which they disagree.
In another similar case, a federal appeals court in July ruled that President Donald Trump violated the First Amendment whenever he blocked a critic to silence a viewpoint.
Rapert has repeatedly clashed with groups over his policies. He sponsored the 2015 law requiring that a privately funded Ten Commandments monument be placed on Capitol grounds. Less than 24 hours after its installation, a man drove his car into the monument, smashing it to pieces. The same man also destroyed a Ten Commandments monument outside of Oklahoma’s state Capitol.
Rapert’s support for the monument also prompted the Satanic Temple to hold a First Amendment rally at the Arkansas Capitol featuring a statue of a goat-headed, winged creature called Baphomet.