Blocked: Protecting Free Speech in the Public Square of the Social Media Age

Protecting Free Speech in the public Square of the Social Media Age


Social media, according to the United States Supreme Court, is “perhaps the most powerful mechanism for citizens to make their voices heard.

It allows a person with an internet connection to become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.” 

The idea of giving citizens the right to make their voices heard was far-fetched when it was enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. 

But because they were some of the most imaginative minds of the 18th century, the framers of the Constitution were bound to come up with ideas considered wild and unrealistic at the time. 

As visionary as they were, the Founders couldn’t have imagined anything like the internet or the colossal megaphones of Facebook and Twitter. Likewise, it’s difficult today to imagine a world without social media, let alone the internet.

The internet, probably more than anything else, has let closeted atheists around the world know that they’re not alone. 

The internet, probably more than anything else, has allowed people to easily search their holy books for absurdities and contradictions—only to find more than they ever realized were there. The internet, probably more than anything else, has given atheists a voice in our national discourse. 

Betty Jo Fernau is an Arkansas activist who understands all of this. She enthusiastically participates in Facebook and Twitter discussions, sometimes with her elected representatives, as is her right granted by the First Amendment and upheld by the Supreme Court. 

On several occasions, she’s posted criticism of statements made on the official Facebook page and Twitter feed of her state senator, Jason Rapert. 

In 2014, after Rapert used his official Facebook page to reiterate his opposition to same-sex marriage, she posted a criticism in response. 

A few hours later, she discovered that she was now banned from posting comments of any kind on his official page. So she went to his official Twitter feed to criticize him again, this time for blocking her participation in a public forum with her elected official. 

A day or so later, she was blocked on Twitter as well. 

Cathey Shoshone is another Arkansas activist. In 2014, she participated in the campaign to repeal her state constitution’s prohibition of same-sex marriage. 

That was the year she was banned from Rapert’s Facebook page after she criticized his religious opposition to same-sex marriage. 

In 2015, he blocked her from his Twitter account as well after she posted viewpoints that differed from his. 

That same year, Robert Barringer was also blocked from Rapert’s Facebook page after he took issue with Rapert’s post opposing a woman’s right to choose. 

In 2018, it was Karen Dempsey who was blocked after she criticized Rapert’s disparaging remarks about atheists. 

Betty Jo, Cathey, Robert, and Karen are now plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit that was filed by American Atheists against Senator Rapert on October 2, 2018. 

“The senator’s conduct constitutes viewpoint discrimination, which is prohibited under the First Amendment. Government officials cannot take hostile actions—like limiting participation in public forums—against someone simply because they have different beliefs,” said Alison Gill, American Atheists’ Legal and Policy Director. 

“These forums include social media accounts used by public officials for government purposes.” “Senator 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,” said American Atheists’ president, Nick Fish. 

“Anyone capitalizing on their elected officials to advance their particular religious viewpoint seriously misunderstands the foundation on which America was built.” 

Arkansas attorney Matt Campbell, an expert on civil rights, criminal law, and the appellate process, is American Atheists’ local counsel in the lawsuit. 

According to Campbell, “Senator Rapert’s own comments demonstrate that his actions were motivated by animus toward atheists and those who support the constitutional separation of religion and government.” 

American Atheists seeks a court order permitting the plaintiffs to participate in these public forums, as well as nominal damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. 

This lawsuit is just one example of how American Atheists are taking action against public officials who curtail the free-speech rights of their constituents. 

We have also launched Atheists ENGAGE, a national online campaign to ensure that atheist voices are heard at all levels of government. 

Go to atheistsengage.org to learn more about your rights. The website also provides some guidelines about online discourse, as well as suggested tweets and social media posts to start the conversation and ensure that your voice is being heard by your elected officials.

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Pamela Whissel
By Pamela Whissel
Editor-in-Chief, American Atheist Magazine

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