Public Forum

New Mexico Judge Says Official Can’t Block Critical User from Facebook

In this Dec. 2, 2019, file photo, the Facebook logo is displayed on a mobile phone in this photo illustration. (Reuters/Johanna Geron)

In a ruling filed on March 11th, a New Mexico district judge dismissed a local official’s attempt to toss a lawsuit filed against him for blocking a constituent on his Facebook page. 

Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin allegedly blocked Jeff Swanson from his Facebook page sometime in or before 2019. Though the page was technically personal–the bio did not mention his official post–Griffin regularly used it to discuss governmental issues. According to the ruling, Griffin created posts in which he discussed meetings he had with other government officials, shared letters he sent to other state representatives, and encouraged people to advocate for certain public policies. 

See also: Missouri State Official Can Block Users From Her Twitter Account, Eighth Circuit Rules

Swanson’s lawyers sued Griffin in 2020, claiming that he had violated the First Amendment by blocking their client for expressing critical viewpoints. The lawyers also claimed that Griffin and his assistant, Sylvia Tillbrook, had violated Swanson’s First Amendment rights by “withholding and deleting” a number of materials from Griffin’s Facebook page, which they contend are public records.

Griffin asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis that the law regarding public officials’ use of social media platforms was not established at the time the alleged violation occurred. Because he did not know blocking users from his social media page would violate the First Amendment, Griffin argues he has qualified immunity.

Gonzalez rejected this argument, writing that in 2019 “it would have been clear to a reasonable public official that a public official violates the First Amendment by establishing a Facebook page as a public forum and then blocking people from that page because their views differed from the public official’s views.”

Gonzalez’ ruling is notable, in part, because the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit–which has jurisdiction over New Mexico–has not yet ruled on the question at the heart of the case: whether public officials can block users from their social media platforms if those platforms are being used for official purposes. Only the Second Circuit (Knight First Amendment Institute v. Donald Trump), the Fourth Circuit (Davison v. Randall), and the Eighth Circuit (Mike Campbell v. Representative Cheri Toalson Reisch) have issued rulings on this matter, though all three have upheld that blocking users violates the First Amendment. The earliest ruling, Knight v. Trump, was delivered in 2018.