Atheists say Arkansas legislator violated the Constitution — by blocking them on Twitter

American Atheists sued Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert alleging that he “unconstitutionally blocked” them on Facebook and Twitter because of their different viewpoints, violating the First and 14th Amendments.
American Atheists sued Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert alleging that he “unconstitutionally blocked” them on Facebook and Twitter because of their different viewpoints, violating the First and 14th Amendments. AP

Twitter and Facebook aren’t mentioned in the Bill of Rights, but a group of atheists say an Arkansas legislator violated their constitutional rights by blocking them on those platforms.

American Atheists, a New Jersey-based group that pushes for the separation of church and state, filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court on Tuesday accusing Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert of blocking four social media users in the state because they are atheists and expressed viewpoints that clashed with his.

“Government officials cannot take hostile actions—like limiting participation in public forums—against someone simply because they have different beliefs,” Alison Gill, American Atheists’ legal and policy director, said in a statement. “These forums include social media accounts used by public officials for government purposes.

The lawsuit accuses Rapert of violating the First and 14th Amendments, as well as Arkansas law.

American Atheists President Nick Fish said Rapert “has a duty to represent all of his constituents, not just the ones who share his religious views, and on that duty, he is failing miserably.”

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It’s a growing criticism of politicians around the country who have blocked constituents — all the way up to the president, whose justice department appealed a May ruling in which a judge said critics of the president had their First Amendment rights violated when they were blocked on Twitter, The Associated Press reports.

Rapert did not immediately respond to request for comment on the lawsuit.

One of the atheist plaintiffs, Betty Jo Fernau, a financial analyst and treasurer of Arkansans for Equality, was blocked on the Facebook page Rapert used as a member of the state legislature in May 2014 after she commented on a post about same-sex marriage, according to the lawsuit.

Fernau’s comment included “a lengthy list of conduct that the Bible prohibits but which Rapert and others did not oppose,” including eating cheeseburgers and using blended fabrics, the lawsuit said. Fernau later added a comment about the separation of church and state.

Within a day, Fernau’s comments had been deleted and she’d been banned from Rapert’s Facebook page, the lawsuit said.

Fernau confronted Rapert on Twitter about the Facebook incident.

“BLOCKING me from commenting is NOT how a politician should act when someone disagrees. Did I call you names or be hateful? No,” Fernau wrote, per screenshots in the court filings.

Rapert then blocked Fernau on Twitter, too, according to the lawsuit.

Rapert’s official Facebook page “About” section has a caveat about blocking: “Anyone who engages in bullying, intimidation, personal attacks, uses profanity or attempts to mislead others with false information, will find their privilege to post on the page revoked. Thank you for respecting others.”

But the lawsuit cites a handful of instances in which Rapert’s page did not ban, block or delete comments when individuals posted content that could be viewed as breaking those rules.

“She is a domestic terrorist,” one Facebook user wrote on a post about Maxine Waters, according to the lawsuit.

“SOMEBODY SHOULD BURN IT DOWN, I WOULDN’T BUT SOMEBODY COULD,” another Facebook user wrote on a Rapert Facebook post about the Red Hen, a restaurant that refused to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

The lawsuit asks that the court permit the blocked atheists to again participate in Rapert’s social media pages and asks for nominal damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees.

Rapert, a Republican of Conway, Arkansas, was involved in putting in a new Ten Commandments monument at the state capitol after an earlier monument was vandalized in 2017, KFSM reports.

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