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Court: Social media blocking by St. Louis official violated constitutional rights

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(The Center Square) – Former St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, now serving a prison sentence for an unrelated fraud charge, violated a constituent’s constitutional rights when he blocked her for making critical comments on social media, a federal appeals court said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit on Tuesday upheld a U.S. District Court ruling in favor of Sarah Felts, an abortion and civil rights activist in St. Louis.

On Jan. 26, 2019, Felts criticized Reed’s support for closing the St. Louis Workhouse, a medium security jail, according to Tuesday’s ruling. Felts posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter: “What do you mean by ‘change the messaging around #CloseTheWorkhouse,’ @PresReed? #STLBOA #aldergeddon2019 #WokeVoterSTL.”

Reed, who resigned his position in 2022 after pleading guilty to two counts of bribery in U.S. District Court, blocked Felts hours after her post. She sued Reed for violating her First and 14th Amendment rights by blocking her from the account. Reed unblocked Felts after she filed the complaint, according to the ruling. The district court ruled in her favor, stating his action was viewpoint discrimination in a designated public forum.

“I am glad the Court spoke clearly: Our elected leaders may not abuse their authority to silence the people they represent just because they disagree,” Felts said in a statement. “Twitter has empowered everyday citizens to engage with our elected officials more than ever before.”

Megan Green, who was elected Board President after Reed’s resignation, was substituted for him in the suit by the district court and she appealed the case to the appellate court.

Felts’ case was taken up by the ACLU of Missouri and Washington University School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic.

“This case was never about money – we asked for and received only nominal damages – but rather it has always been about upholding our constitutional right to be heard by and able to speak critically to those who represent us,” Anthony Rothert of the ACLU said in a statement.

The district court ruled Reed administered the account “under the color of law as an official government account” and violated Felts’ constitutional rights, which Green didn’t appeal. However, she appealed the ruling that Reed’s action was a “final municipal policy decision in his areas of the city’s business,” according to court documents.

“This decision recognizes that the government can be held accountable when a powerful official has used their office to silence critics,” Lisa Hoppenjans, director of the First Amendment Clinic at Washington University School of Law, said in a statement.

The three-judge appellate court found Reed’s blocking of Felts was “unilateral, unreviewable, and not subject to other policies. He created municipal policy in his area of the city’s business. Because of the unique power of the president of the board of aldermen, reed exercised final policymaking authority when he blocked Felts.”

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