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An Idaho Republican blocked voters on Facebook. Now they’re suing

Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Iona, (facing) and Rep. Kevin Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, talk before the start of the House session on March 16. Christensen is being sued for blocking Idaho residents on social media.  (Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman/TNS)
By Ryan Suppe Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Five Idaho residents have sued state Rep. Chad Christensen after the Iona Republican blocked them from viewing his Facebook page.

Gregory Graf, Marguerite Shaw, Suellen Carman, Steven Thyberg and Carolyn Dessin filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Idaho. Shaw, Carman and Dessin live in Christensen’s legislative district. The Idaho Press first reported the lawsuit last week.

“It’s not OK for state representatives to be blocking Idaho voters from a public forum,” Graf told the Idaho Statesman by phone. “And that goes for any representative, not just Rep. Christensen.”

It’s not the first case to assert a U.S. public official violated the First Amendment by blocking critics on social media. But the question remains unsettled, and the Idaho case has the potential to further clarify the boundaries of speech protections in digital spaces.

The lawsuit alleged that Christensen’s Facebook page, Re-elect Rep. Chad Christensen, is distinct from his personal profile, and it’s a public forum for discourse “regarding matters of public concern.”

By blocking constituents and Idaho voters, Christensen prevents them from viewing posts, commenting or participating in online discussions that deal with “matters of public concern,” the suit said. Christensen’s “viewpoint-based blocking … infringes their individual freedoms as guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

Christensen did not return a phone call from the Statesman seeking comment. He acknowledged the lawsuit last week in a Facebook post.

“They think it is (their) 1st Amendment right, because I am a politician,” Christensen wrote. “Also, this is mainly a campaign page, not an official government page. There has been precedent set on that.”

Several lawsuits have made similar claims against U.S. officials in recent years, the most high-profile case involving former President Donald Trump.

In 2017, a group of Twitter users blocked from viewing Trump’s tweets sued the former president. Federal courts found that, because Trump used social media for official purposes, blocking users who were critical of the president amounted to viewpoint-based discrimination.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not heard a case on this issue, but state and federal courts have addressed similar arguments in different ways. In 2019, a Missouri state representative was sued for blocking a constituent on Twitter. Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch argued the account was for campaigning purposes and not official government business. A federal court ruled in her favor.

“I’m not sure there’s a real clear theme or answer that’s coming out of this,” Richard Seamon, a constitutional law professor and associate dean at the University of Idaho, told the Statesman by phone.

The basic question is “to what extent a social media account operated by an individual, even if he or she is a politician, can be treated like government property,” Seamon said. Generally, when the government controls property, such as a park or sidewalk, it’s not supposed to remove citizens from the property based on the content of their speech, Seamon said.

“The difficulty is translating it into the social media context,” he said.

A key aspect of such a case is not only the way a public official uses their social media platform but also the content of speech that led the official to block a user, Seamon said.

“If they’re criticizing an official position, or official conduct, I think a court would more likely say, ‘Gee, that sounds like criticism of the person in their official capacity, and that should be protected by the First Amendment,’ ” he said.

Christensen argued in last week’s Facebook post that his account is primarily for campaigning. He also noted that some of the plaintiffs are not his constituents. Graf and Thyberg don’t live in Christensen’s legislative district, according to the lawsuit. Constituency generally can be an important factor in these cases, Seamon said.

The lawsuit excluded specific examples of posts from the plaintiffs. But it said the plaintiffs have criticized Christensen for his position on policies.

Graf said he was blocked after criticizing one of Christensen’s campaign mailers that attacked the representative’s primary opponent and included references to his children.

Graf and Christensen have an acrimonious relationship aside from the social media lawsuit.

Graf is a Republican strategist who advocates for moderate conservative policies and candidates, while Christensen is among the Idaho Legislature’s far-right coalition.

The two men have sued each other for defamation, which stems from a 2020 phone conversation between Graf and Christensen’s supervisor at State Farm Insurance at the time. Christensen said Graf tried to get him fired from his job, while Graf said the phone call was engineered to harm his reputation.

The social media lawsuit is unrelated to their previous disagreements, Graf said. He and the other plaintiffs communicated on Twitter about being blocked by Christensen before filing the lawsuit, he said.

“An example needs to be set and the standard needs to be set for what constitutes civil … behavior from sitting state legislators, elected officials towards their constituents,” he said.

Seamon did not comment on the case against Christensen, except to say that it could be relevant to the broader debate over public officials’ use of social media.

“It illustrates a lot of similar cases we’ve seen over the last several years involving politicians who establish these social media accounts and use (them) for multiple purposes,” he said.