Clemons back in court for social media blocking – News – Gainesville Sun


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Both sides cite First Amendment in case over Twitter, Facebook access to lawmaker

State Rep. Chuck Clemons, who was in court this week defending his action to block a constituent on social media, faced skepticism from federal judges as similar cases across the nation have been decided in favor of open access.

Clemons, R-Newberry, is being sued in federal court by Gainesville resident Peter Morgan Attwood after Attwood was blocked on Twitter by Clemons for asking the lawmaker to explain a 2018 vote. Clemons’ attorney argues that his social media accounts are protected by “legislative immunity.”

The case has hit the 14-month mark, through motions and hearings, but it far from being decided.

“I didn’t think we’d get this far,” Attwood’s attorney Eric Lindstrom said. “I thought we’d file a complaint and he’d unblock Attwood.”

In February 2018, Clemons voted to block discussion in the legislature on HB 219, a bill to ban assault weapons. Attwood retweeted Emma Gonzalez, a student and survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Attwood, a Gainesville videographer, added to the Feb. 20 tweet with “Hello @ChuckClemons21 I’m a constituent. Please explain this vote please. Thank you.” He was blocked soon after on Twitter and Facebook.

Both parties were in court Tuesday to argue the case. Clemons’ team, provided by the state, was appealing a rejected motion to dismiss. A three-judge panel didn’t seem to support the theory of legislative immunity in this case. Though one judge said Clemons may have good arguments other grounds.

“Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, whether successful or not, I’m looking forward to taking this to trial and standing up for my constitutional First Amendment right,” Clemons said Wednesday. “I’m eager to present our case in court.”

Attwood is being represented by the ACLU of Florida and Lindstrom. Clemons has Florida House of Representatives attorney Adam Tanenbaum.

Legislative immunity protects lawmakers from being sued by constituents for how they vote and for speeches they give during legislative debate. Clemons’ attorney said that extends to personal and official social media accounts.

“It has to do with bringing an assault weapons ban to a debate on the floor of the House,” Tenenbaum said. “That’s why he was essentially trolling Chuck Clemens on his social media page.”

Lindstrom said the suit is about Attwood being blocked, not Clemons’ vote. He also said Tenebaum’s argument contradicts Clemons’ past statements.

“It’s a really difficult argument to articulate with a straight face,” Lindstrom said.

Similar cases around the country haven’t fared well.

Several federal courts in the last year have found that lawmakers don’t have immunity and that social media engagements deserve the same free speech allowed in town hall meetings.

President Donald Trump’s move to block critics was ruled unconstitutional by a Manhattan federal judge in May 2018. Ohio Sen. Joe Uecker in February 2019 reached a $20,000 settlement with a constituent who was blocked on Facebook after questioning the lawmaker vote on an abortion bill. He also had to unblock the person until he left office.

Missouri state Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, had to unblock a man on Twitter after being sued. Earlier this year, a federal judge also sided with One Wisconsin Now after being blocked by three state assembly Republicans.

In March, a lawyer for the South Carolina House suggested lawmakers stop blocking constituents on social media who haven’t harassed or threatened them, The State newspaper reported. The lawyer warned them of free speech lawsuits and said they would have help from House attorneys to fight their case.

In his complaint against Clemons, Attwood’s says his First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights were violated by excluding him from a public forum. He is asking for the court order Clemons to remove the blocks and to reimburse his legal fees.

Clemons has said the account is his personal account, though it previously shared his official position and political statements. Clemons says he has several other people blocked, including friends, for their language and strong political arguments and that the lawsuit is a “political stunt.”

“It’s political bullying,” he said.

Lindstrom said, “The posture of this all is just so disturbing to me and sad. Representative Clemons is using state resources to defend himself in this case. He’s using the House attorney to say he was using this account as an individual, not a representative.”




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