June 23, 2020

St. Louis and Jefferson City, Mo—The Washington University in St. Louis School of Law's First Amendment Clinic and the ACLU of Missouri have filed suit against U.S. Senator for Missouri Roy Blunt and St. Louis City Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed on behalf of two constituents for violating their First Amendment rights to free speech.

The central purpose of the First Amendment is to allow people, regardless of their views, to hold the government accountable through expression. By hiding comments or blocking constituents on their official social media accounts, Senator Blunt and President Reed are actively engaging in the suppression of speech.

Plaintiff Dennis Enloe is a constituent of Senator Blunt and uses Facebook to participate in political discourse. Senator Blunt and/or the government officials acting at his direction, however, have suppressed Mr. Enloe’s ability to participate in a government-controlled public forum by hiding comments he made that were critical of Senator Blunt's political views or actions as an elected official. This is unconstitutional.

Sarah Felts, a politically engaged resident of St. Louis City, Missouri, was blocked by President Reed on his official Twitter account because of the critical viewpoints expressed in her tweets. Ms. Felts responded to a post from Action St. Louis, a St. Louis grassroots racial justice organization, and asked President Reed to clarify a statement he made regarding the issue of potentially closing St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, commonly known as the St. Louis Workhouse. President Reed responded not by engaging his constituent—as we hope all elected officials would—but by blocking her.

As official government communication increasingly moves online, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must protect the public’s ability to respond to and criticize their elected officials.

“The fact that a public official disagrees with you on an issue doesn’t mean they can silence you,” said Tony Rothert, Legal Director of the ACLU of Missouri. “That holds true whether you’re speaking out in a public park, at a town hall meeting, or on social media.” 

“The Supreme Court has recognized that the Internet, and social media, in particular, is now the most important place for public debate,” said Lisa Hoppenjans, Director of the First Amendment Clinic at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. “When government officials open their social media pages to comments from the public, they can’t selectively suppress the speech of those with critical views. Doing so not only distorts the type of debate on public issues that is important to our democracy, it also violates the First Amendment.”  

Washington University First Amendment Clinic Fall 2019 student attorneys Sara Benson, Jim Coury, and Annie Stanford and Spring 2020 student attorneys Kendall Hopkins, Danielle Joe, and Jake Villarreal investigated these matters and drafted the complaints under the supervision of the clinic director.