Davison v. Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, 072517 VAEDC, 1:16cv932 (JCC/IDD)
|Docket Nº:||1:16cv932 (JCC/IDD)|
|Opinion Judge:||JAMES C. CACHERIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE|
|Party Name:||BRIAN C. DAVISON, Plaintiff, v. LOUDOUN COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, et al., Defendants.|
|Case Date:||July 25, 2017|
|Court:||United States District Courts, 4th Circuit, Eastern District of Virginia|
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
JAMES C. CACHERIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE
This case raises important questions about the constitutional limitations applicable to social media accounts maintained by elected officials. Plaintiff pro se Brian C. Davison brings suit against Defendant Phyllis J. Randall, Chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff's claims stem from an incident during which Defendant banned him from her Facebook page - titled “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” - for a period of roughly 12 hours. Plaintiff alleges that this violated his rights to free speech and due process under the United States and Virginia Constitutions. A bench trial was held on May 16, 2017, and the Court took the matter under advisement.
The Court makes the following findings of fact and, for the reasons set forth below, concludes that: (1) Defendant acted under color of state law in maintaining her “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page and banning Plaintiff from that page; (2) Defendant's actions, while relatively inconsequential as a practical matter, did in fact violate Plaintiff's right of free speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, § 12 of the Constitution of Virginia; (3) Defendant did not violate Plaintiff's due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution or Article I, § 11 of the Constitution of Virginia; (4) injunctive relief is not warranted; but (5) a declaratory judgment clarifying that Defendant's “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page operates as a forum for speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, § 12 of the Virginia Constitution is appropriate under the circumstances.
FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
I. Findings of Relevant Fact
1. Plaintiff is a resident of Loudoun County, Virginia. Tr. 16.
2. Plaintiff is active in local politics, and has a particular interest in what he believes to be corruption on the part of Loudoun County's school board. Tr. 17-19.
3. Defendant is Chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors - the local governing body of Loudoun County. Tr. 68. Defendant was elected to a four-year term in November of 2015 and took office January 1, 2016. Tr. 68. Her duties, as she sees them, include communicating with her constituents. Defendant's duties do not specifically require her to maintain a website for that purpose. Tr. 185.
4. Defendant is paid a salary by the County, and her position as Chair is the only job she holds. Tr. 72.
5. Defendant's office is provided a budget by the County that Defendant may spend at her discretion, and from which Defendant pays the staff she hires. Tr. 72-73.
6. Defendant's staff includes Jeanine Arnett, Defendant's Chief of Staff. Tr. 73. Ms. Arnett's duties entail generally “support[ing] the Office of Chair.” Tr. 181. This sometimes requires Ms. Arnett to attend events with Defendant after hours. Tr. 181, 217, 227.
7. Ms. Arnett and Defendant share a personal friendship that predates their professional relationship. They remain friends outside of work. Tr. 177, 224.
8. Defendant maintains a Facebook page titled “Chair Phyllis J. Randall, ” over which she exerts plenary control. Tr. 82, 84.
9. Facebook is a popular social media website, see Packingham v. North Carolina, 137 S.Ct. 1730, 1735 (U.S. 2017), that, as relevant here, permits public figures to create “pages” through which they may interact with the interested public. See Pl. Exh. 38.
10. Defendant created her “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page in collaboration with Ms. Arnett on December 30, 2015 - the day before she was sworn into office. Tr. 133, 176. Defendant then posted on the “Friends of Phyllis Randall” Facebook page, which she had employed during her campaign, and asked that people “visit [her] County Facebook Page[, ] Chair Phyllis J. Randall.” Pl. Exh. 221.
11. Both Defendant and Ms. Arnett are designated as administrators of the “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page, meaning that both have the ability to post to the page and edit its contents. See Tr. 85, 109; Pl. Exh. 93.
12. Defendant's avowed purpose in creating the Facebook page is to address County residents. Tr. 176. She generally uses the Facebook page to share information of interest with the County she serves. Tr. 196.
13. Defendant purposely created her Facebook page outside of the County's official channels so as not to be constrained by the policies applicable to County social media websites. The “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page will not revert to the County when Defendant leaves office, and she will retain control of that page. Tr. 175, 183.
14. Neither Defendant nor Ms. Arnett use County-issued electronic devices to post to or otherwise manage the “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page. Rather, both use personal devices to do so. Tr. 112, 114, 179-81.
15. Generally, Defendant is entirely responsible for posting to the “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page. On occasion, Ms. Arnett will take pictures of Defendant at events and forward them to Defendant to posts to the page. Tr. 110-11. Ms. Arnett has, on at least one occasion, personally posted a picture taken by her or another to the page. Pl. Exh. 191. On at least one other occasion, Defendant has taken pictures and sent them to Ms. Arnett to post to the page. Tr. 180.
16. In the “About” section of Defendant's “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page, the page is categorized as that of a “Government Official.” This section of the page further provides as contact information the telephone number of Defendant's County office and her County email address, and includes the web address for Defendant's official County website. Tr. 129-31.
17. Many of Defendant's posts to her “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page relate to her work as Chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.
18. In one such post, Defendant designates her “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page as a channel through which her constituents are directed to contact her: Everyone, could you do me a favor. I really want to hear from ANY Loudoun citizen on ANY issues, request, criticism, compliment, or just your thoughts. However, I really try to keep back and forth conversations (as opposed to one time information items such as road closures) on my county Facebook page (Chair Phyllis J. Randall) or County email (Phllis.firstname.lastname@example.org). Having back and forth constituent conversations are Foiable (FOIA) so if you could reach out to me on these mediums that would be appreciated. Thanks much, Phyllis
Pl. Exhs. 201, 231.
19. In another post, Defendant uses the “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page to solicit participation in the “Commission on Women and Girls, ” an initiative Defendant created and runs in her capacity as Chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors from her County office. The post in question includes a link to an application hosted on Loudoun County's website and the telephone number of Defendant's office. Tr. 87-88, 90-91, 205; Pl. Exh. 112.
20. Many posts document meetings of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. Some discuss Board proclamations recognizing “National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, ” “National Hunger Awareness Month, ” and “Loudoun Small Business Week, ” among others. Pl. Exhs. 109, 172, 195. Another post memorializes the Board's decision to approve funding for new equipment for Loudoun County firefighters, stating that “[m]aking sure Loudoun's first responders have the required equipment is a high priority for your County Chair.” Pl. Exh. 136. Similarly, in another post Defendant uses her “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page to announce that the Board has adopted a budget for fiscal year 2017. Pl. Exh. 180. In another post, Defendant notes the Board's formal recognition of two police officers who saved a Loudoun County man from a potentially fatal heroin overdose. Pl. Exh. 182.
21. Other posts on Defendant's “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” Facebook page document events outside of Board meetings that Defendant attended in her official capacity as Chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. For example, two posts report on a conference of the National Association of Counties, at which Defendant represented the Board of Supervisors. Tr. 144-45; Pl. Exhs. 154, 156. Another post discusses the Metro Summit in Washington, DC, at which Defendant likewise represented Loudoun County. Pl. Exh. 181. In another post, Defendant memorializes her attendance at a...
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