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Black Lives Matter leaders sue California sheriff for blocking them on Facebook

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President Trump was caught up in a similar lawsuit last year

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Northern California filed a lawsuit on Wednesday accusing a Sacramento sheriff of unlawfully blocking Black Lives Matter leaders from his official Facebook page.

According to the ACLU, two Black Lives Matter Sacramento leaders were blocked by Sheriff Scott Jones on Facebook after Jones refused to investigate the death of Mikel McIntyre, who was killed by Sacramento deputies in 2017. This past fall, Jones posted on his official Facebook page to seek support, but was met with criticism which prompted him to block BLM leaders Tanya Faison and Sonia Lewis.

When a page blocks someone on social media platforms, the blocked user is no longer able to view or interact with posts on that page. Because the page in question was operated by the sheriff, a government official, the block raises unique constitutional issues.

“The sheriff’s decision to silence them based on their views violates their free speech rights, undermines public trust of government, and offends democratic values,” ACLU senior staff attorney Sean Riordan said. “Free speech must be protected from government censorship on social media just as it is in a public meeting or any forum where people debate politics, religion, and other social issues. The methods may change but the protections of the Constitution don’t.”

The ACLU is seeking that the courts declare that Jones’ actions were unconstitutional, damages, and an injunction that would require him to unblock Faison and Lewis.

A number of lawsuits have been filed in states like Maine and Maryland on behalf of users who have accused public officials who blocked people of hindering their First Amendment free speech rights. There is precedent as well. Last May, a federal judge in New York ruled that President Trump’s tweets were part of a public forum and that by blocking people, he had violated their free speech rights under the Constitution.

“This case is about ensuring that every voice is heard,” said John Heller of Rogers Joseph O’Donnell law firm. “The First Amendment requires no less.”