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.