A Douglasville woman has filed a lawsuit in federal court against a county commissioner accusing him of violating her First Amendment rights and breaching a settlement he agreed to earlier this year.
Brenda Bohanan filed the suit against District 2 County Commissioner Kelly Robinson in U.S. District Court in Atlanta in June alleging that he continues to violate her free speech rights by blocking her from his public Facebook page.
The suit also claims Robinson is in breach of a settlement the Douglas County Board of Commissioners and Robinson signed off on in May where Robinson agreed to unblock Bohanan and others from his public Facebook page. The county paid out $2,500 as part of the deal — $750 in damages to Bohanan and $1,750 to her attorneys.
After Robinson signed the agreement, he had 24 hours to unblock Bohanan from his public Facebook page under the deal, something Bohanan and her attorneys say never happened.
Attorney Clare R. Norins, a law professor and director of the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia, is representing Bohanan along with Atlanta constitutional law attorney Gerry Weber.
Norins told the Sentinel earlier this week that Robinson closed down the Facebook page that was the subject of the settlement earlier this year and moved the contents of that page to a new Facebook page with a different name and url from the page listed in the settlement. Norins said Bohanan is blocked from the new page Robinson created.
Norins said the new page Robinson created that Bohanan is blocked from includes posts that have to do with his official capacity as a county commissioner, including things like town hall listings and what he’s doing in the district.
“Just the name alone before he changed it was Commissioner Kelly Robinson,” Bohanan said. “So that in itself made it a public forum because he was posting in his official capacity. So what he’s done now is just taken off ‘Commissioner’ and announced that it’s now a personal page and he was having someone purge the content but not all of it and then posting new content that was pretty much the same as the old content.”
Norins said platforms such as Facebook where there is an “interactive component to it where people can comment or like the post” have been considered by federal courts to be “a designated forum for speech.”
She said Robinson has blocked Bohanan “based on his dislike of comments” she made on the Facebook page “Douglasville & Douglas County for Civic Action.” Norins said Robinson is engaging in “viewpoint discrimination” by blocking Bohanan.
“And that’s what violates the First Amendment because government officials cannot regulate speech by members of the public or punish members of the public based on the viewpoints they’re expressing or the perspective that they’re voicing,” Norins said.
Norins added: “It’s not about money damages. (Bohanan) wants access to this forum that other people have access to be able to express herself and also to see what the commissioner is saying. So really this is about getting her access, and we also have reason to believe and have been contacted by other people who have been blocked by the commissioner. So the lawsuit seeks to stop this practice of blocking people, not just against Ms. Bohanan but against any member of the public.”
Norins said she and Weber have filed a preliminary injunction asking the federal court to require Robinson to unlock Bohanan and others while the lawsuit is pending “so their First Amendment rights don’t continue to be violated.”
Norins said Robinson and his attorneys, which include former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, will have a chance to respond to the request for a preliminary injunction. Once Robinson’s legal team responds, Bohanan’s team will have a chance to reply and then the court will rule on it, Norins said.
Courts at all levels have been slowed by COVID-19, and Norins said getting an injunction could take months.
Robinson did not return a message seeking comment for this story by Sentinel press time Friday.
As the new principal of Sweetwater Elementary School, Albert Lindsey had hoped to mingle with students and parents during the school’s open house.
However, those plans were put on hold after the school system decided to open the new year with digital-only learning amid a spike in confirmed cases of COVID-19.
When the Douglas County School System holds it annual Sneak-A-Peeks for elementary schools on Monday between 4:30 and 6 p.m., most students and their parents will be required to attend virtually. The school system said kindergartners and students new to schools may be able to attend Sneak-A-Peeks in-person, with each elementary school making that decision.
All middle schools in the county will hold their Sneak-A-Peak events on Monday and those will all be virtual, according to the school system.
High schools will hold a virtual learning orientation Aug. 10 and a Back-to-School Bash for ninth graders and other new students on Sept. 4.
The school system encourages students and parents to visit their school’s website for details and exact times.
“It will be different this year,” said Lindsey, who served as principal of Lithia Springs High for three years before moving across the street to Sweetwater.
“I’m going to miss the in-person event,” Stewart Middle Principal Donita Cullen said. “It is always a big event because I can meet the parents and they get to see the principal. It is always great to be visible and greeting the students.”
Said Lindsey: “As a new principal, you want to show that you are personable. You want to look the parents and students in the eye and show that you are there for them.”
Cullen said once students get their schedules, they will hold a Google meet for them with their individual teachers.
At a typical middle school Sneak-A-Peek event in previous years, Cullen said students could pay for their lockers and learn about the different clubs and organizations at the school.
She said that information will be relayed to students at a later date.
Schools in the county are expected to begin Aug. 17 with the first nine weeks being digital.
“I’ve been doing this for 22 years, and I’m still never able to sleep the day before it starts,” Cullen said.
Cullen’s youngest son, Jonas, will be an incoming freshman at Douglas County High. Because she worked at Douglas County High prior to being named as principal at Stewart, she knows most of the teachers.
However, she said not having an in-person event will not be that big of a problem.
“As a parent, I think I’m in a good situation,” she said. “I’ve worked at D.C., and Jonas was always around. I would have liked the opportunity to take the principal’s hat off and be the parent.”
Luke Blasczyk was happy to be back on the field with his teammates.
This past week, football teams across the state opened practice for the upcoming season with a five-day conditioning period. Teams can put on full pads this weekend.
Blasczyk and his Alexander teammates are getting a jump as the Cougars held a midnight practice.
“I’m really happy to just be out the house and back doing what we love,” Blasczyk said. “It is good to be back at it.”
Alexander coach Matt Combs agreed.
“We are all excited to be back,” Combs said. “It is an opportunity to be back together.”
Teams in the county were allowed to do involuntary conditioning starting June 15 after all school activities were canceled in March at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Because of GHSA protocols, Alexander has had to canceled its Cougar Camp tradition. The Cougars would camp at the school a couple days to begin the start of fall drills.
Alexander has done this the last 14 years.
“There are a lot of former players that are not happy about this,” Combs said. “It is a tradition that had to end. The freshman will miss out on this.”
Combs said the players being away from the game has given them a sense of urgency since returning.
“I think the kids appreciate the little things now,” Combs said. “I think a little normalcy for them is exciting. We are a little behind in work, but so are other teams.”
The start of the season has been pushed back two weeks until Sept. 4. School in the county starts on Aug. 17 with everyone doing digital learning for the first nine weeks.
With the Southeastern Conference moving to a 10-game conference-only schedule for the upcoming season, the Georgia Bulldogs were forced to drop their rivalry game against Georgia Tech for the first time in nearly a century.
The SEC adopted its 10-game, conference-only format that was recommended by the league’s athletic directors.
With that format, the Bulldogs will not be able to play Georgia Tech for the first time since 1924.
The Atlantic Coast Conference, which Tech is a member of, adopted a schedule which would have allowed one non-conference matchup, which the Yellow Jackets would have likely scheduled with the Bulldogs.
The game was originally scheduled to be played in Athens the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day.
“The 10-game SEC schedule provides us the best opportunity to play football as safely as possible in a Covid environment,” Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity said during a video conference with reporters. “It’s disappointing the schedule model does not make it possible to play Georgia Tech; however, we look forward to renewing that rivalry in 2021. I do want to commend Commissioner Sankey, his staff, and the university presidents and chancellors for their leadership in continuing to navigate these challenging issues.”
Most conferences have had to redo their schedules in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Georgia was hoping to keep its 127-year old rivalry with the Yellow Jackets intact.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s just the way everything fell,” McGarity said. “We’ll move forward and renew the rivalry next year.”
Although disappointied the teams will not play, Tech athletics director Todd Stansbury was understanding of the decision.
“While it’s certainly disappointing for our student-athletes, coaches and fans that we will not have our annual rivalry football game with Georgia this year, I also understand and respect the decision of the SEC,” Stansbury said. “We hope to finalize our non-conference opponent for the 2020 season in the near future and very much look forward to meeting Georgia again on the gridiron in 2021.”
Three other SEC teams have had to give up rivalry games to ACC opponents because of the schedule. Those games are Florida-FSU, Kentucky-Louisville and South Carolina-Clemson.
SEC teams this fall will play the five divisional opponents and two cross-divisional opponents on their previous schedules, then add two cross-division opponents to take the number of league games from eight to 10. The winners of each division will play in the SEC Championship game Dec. 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Georgia has played in the SEC title game the last three seasons.
Georgia is scheduled to play Alabama and Auburn as cross-over games.
“It was clear in our meeting today that this delay would be beneficial to our student-athletes and promote the safe and orderly return to campus for our student body in August,” UGA President Jere Morehead said in a statement released by UGA. “Having some separation between the earlier reopening of our campuses and the later start of the football season should be helpful.”