Updates on cases, laws, and other topics of interest to local governments

Subscribe by Email

Enter your Email:
Preview | Powered by FeedBlitz

Subscribe in a Reader

Follow Municipal Minute on Twitter


Blog comments do not reflect the views or opinions of the Author or Ancel Glink. Some of the content may be considered attorney advertising material under the applicable rules of certain states. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Please read our full disclaimer

Thursday, August 31, 2017

New Law on Limited Township Consolidation

Governor Rauner recently signed Senate Bill 3, known as the Local Government Consolidation bill, into law as P.A. 100-0107. It amends the Township Code to allow for the consolidation and dissolution of townships through three different methods:

1. Two or more adjacent townships may, by resolution of the townships’ boards, propose consolidation by referendum of voters of each affected township into either a new township or into one of the existing townships.

2. A township may be dissolved and absorbed by two or more townships with which it shares borders. If the township boards of the dissolving and absorbing townships adopt a resolution to propose a referendum, voters of each affected township vote on the referendum at the next general election.

3. Townships that are coterminous with a municipality may be dissolved into the municipality by resolution of the township and  municipal boards and referendum of the voters of the township and municipality.

All of these methods require the assent of the township board to proceed. This will prevent a situation where the electors try to dissolve a township against the will of the township officials. 

Senate Bill 3 also removes the 126 square mile cap on the size of townships. 

An amendment filed shortly before the bill passed through the Senate removed a provision that tied this bill to the rest of the Senate’s Grand Bargain bill package. As a result, Senate Bill 3 will take effect on January 1, 2018, regardless of whether the other Grand Bargain bills become law.

You can read Senate Bill 3 here.

Post Authored by Jessica DeWalt, Ancel Glink

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

More Examples of Employees Fired Because of Social Media

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that employers are not hesitating to terminate employees for their personal social media activities. In previous posts, we have told you about firefighters, police officers, child care workers, teachers, and other employees whose jobs were terminated for social media posts they made on their personal time and on personal accounts.  

Recent developments in Charlottesville and Texas have resulted in a number of new incidents of employees being terminated for personal social media activities, including the following:

A University of Tampa professor was recently fired for posting the following on Twitter:
I don't believe in instant Karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesn't care about them.
A tire company employee in Arizona was fired for responding to a Facebook post about protesting President Trump's visit to Phoenix:
You are all pathetic. Can't wait to drive through. 4x4 with push bumper will be sweet in this crowd. I named my lifted truck 'trumper." 
It's not just their own social media posts that can land employees in hot water. According to news reports, multiple individuals who allegedly attended the Charlottesville rally have been terminated after their photographs at the rally circulated on social media. Two restaurant employees were recently fired from a Minneapolis diner after their employer discovered photographs of the employees wearing Nazi apparel and displaying white supremacy paraphernalia on social media.

The lesson?  While social media can be a great way to share your views about recent news and events, it can also get you fired.  Just another installment of "be careful what you post."

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Law Establishes New Qualifications for Fire Chiefs

P.A. 100-0425 was recently enacted to add new qualification requirements for candidates for appointment to the position of fire chief. The new law applies to municipalities that employ firefighters under either the Civil Service Act or the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners Act and  also applies to fire districts. 

The new law prohibits the appointment of a person to the position of fire chief for a period greater than 6 months unless that person possess the following qualifications and certifications:

1.  Office of the State Fire Marshall Firefighter Basic Certification or Firefighter II Certification; Fire Officer I and II Certifications; and an associate degree in fire science or a bachelor's degree from an accredited university or college; 


2.  A minimum of 10 years' experience as a firefighter at the fire department making the appointment.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf

Monday, August 28, 2017

Gaming Board Rules Against "Video Gaming Mall"

The Illinois Gaming Board has authority over video gaming in Illinois, including determining the eligibility of a business to be issued a video gaming license. In Illinois, video gaming is allowed on a limited basis under rules established by the Video Gaming Act. Those rules generally limit the number of video gaming terminals in an establishment (5 maximum), and restrict the location of the gaming terminals within the establishment, among other rules. In addition, municipalities have authority to ban video gaming or to license establishments that offer video gaming. 

One of the fastest growing video gaming businesses are what is known as "video gaming cafes" - establishments whose primary focus is on video gaming, with secondary service of food and alcohol. These businesses rarely have a full kitchen operation, and as a result are fairly inexpensive to open. Recently, two of these businesses applied for video gaming licenses to operate in the same strip shopping mall in Hometown. The strip mall already had 3 other video gaming businesses. The shopping center's owner's plan, according to the court opinion, was to have 11 gaming establishments in the shopping center - in essence, to operate the shopping center as a video gaming mall.

The Gaming Board denied the 2 new license requests, finding that "having multiple video gaming establishments located within the same strip mall would be akin to having a mini-casino or back-door casino, but without any of the traditional safeguards" (such as security and having a Gaming Board agent on staff). In short, the Gaming Board determined that permitting a "video gaming mall" would not serve the best interests of Illinois residents.

The applicants for the 2 gaming licenses appealed the denial to the court, and the case made its way to the appellate court. The appellate court upheld the denial of the 2 licenses, finding that the Illinois Gaming Board has broad authority to deny a license, including "for any other just cause." In this case, the court found there was sufficient evidence presented to the Gaming Board about the adverse affects a video gaming mall would have on the public to justify the denial of these 2 licenses.

The court also mentioned a recent regulation adopted by the Gaming Board that authorizes the Board to deny a gaming license if approval of that license would create a situation where 2 or more licensed video gaming locations would be operated as a single video gaming operation (like a casino). 

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf

Friday, August 25, 2017

New Podcast on Social Media & Local Government Law

Recently, Ancel Glink attorneys Julie Tappendorf and Dan Bolin were interviewed by GovLove for a podcast called "Local Government Law: Are You Tweeting Into Trouble?" In the podcast, Julie and Dan discuss some of the common legal issues with government use of social media, including First Amendment, copyright, and employee use of social media. You can check out this podcast on GovLove's page on ELGL's website here.   

GovLoveGovLove is a podcast hosted by Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL), where ELGL members interview people who work in local government to learn more about what they do and to explore various issues that impact local government. 

You can access the social media podcast (and others hosted by GovLove) on the following platforms:

Soundcloud here,  iTunes here,  Stitcher here,  Google Play here

Thursday, August 24, 2017

When is a Facebook "Friend" Really A Friend (IRL)?

When is a Facebook "friend" considered a friend IRL (in real life)?  Yesterday, a Florida appeals court ruled that the mere fact that a trial court judge was Facebook friends with an attorney did not disqualify the judge from hearing a case involving that attorney. Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein v. U.S. Automobile Association.

The underlying dispute in this case isn't really important, at least not to this post. The issue before the appeals court was the plaintiff's request that the trial court judge be disqualified because the judge was "friends" on Facebook with a lawyer representing a potential witness and party in the underlying dispute. The trial court had denied the request, and that decision was appealed to the appellate court. 

The appellate court looked at the factors for determining whether a judge should be disqualified, including whether a reasonably prudent person would fear he could not get a "fair and impartial trial" before the judge. In this case, the appellate court determined that Facebook friendship between a judge and an attorney, on its own, was not enough to warrant disqualification of the judge, stating as follows:
A Facebook friendship does not necessarily signify the existence of a close relationship.
The appellate court acknowledged that people can have thousands of Facebook "friends," that a person may not even remember who he or she had "friended" in the past, and that some "friendships" may be due more to Facebook's  data-mining technology than personal interactions. In short, the court rejected any assumption that all Facebook "friends" should rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification. Based on the facts presented in this particular case, the court found no support for disqualification of the judge in the underlying dispute.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Upcoming Labor Law Program

Check out this upcoming seminar presented by Ancel Glink attorneys posted on our sister blog, The Workplace Report with Ancel Glink:

Union Organizing and Management Strategy

When: Wednesday, August 30, 2017 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Where: Bridges of Poplar Creek Country Club (1400 Poplar Creek Drive, Hoffman Estates, IL 60169)

Who: All levels of management, including executive directors, administrators, attorneys, and human resource professionals.

What: Fewer American workers belong to labor unions than at any time since the U.S. government began tracking this statistic. Membership has tumbled even further with the increase of right-to-work laws and litigation over fair share dues. In an effort to boost declining membership, labor unions have set their sights on new sectors, including increased focus on smaller local government units and higher education. Labor unions recently have organized park district employees as well as both resident assistants and adjunct faculty at colleges and universities and further union organizing in these nontraditional sectors is certain.

It is important for an employer to decide its position on union representation as a matter of business strategy, rather than wait until a union has begun an organizing campaign. We believe now is the time for employers to be more aware of potential organizing campaigns and how best to lay the groundwork for implementing a proactive strategy.

Please join us for this informative and educational seminar aimed at providing employers with tips on how to detect potential organizing campaigns, what to do if a campaign begins, and finally, the best ways to respond to a union organizing campaign, including responding to the representation petitions.

How: Seating is limited. Reserve your spot at the breakfast briefing now by calling Kathy Holmes at 312-604-9174 or by making a reservation by email at kholmes@ancelglink.com.

Disclaimer: This post may be considered attorney advertising material under the applicable rules of certain states

Monday, August 21, 2017

New Exemptions to FOIA Exempt Additional Records Requested by Inmates

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act was recently amended to add additional exemptions for records requested by persons committed to the Department of Corrections or a county jail.  Public Act 100-0026 was recently signed by the Governor, and became effective on August 4, 2017.  The amendment adds three new exemptions to Section 7 of FOIA:

(e-8) Records requested by a person committed to the Department of Corrections or a county jail, the disclosure of which would result in the risk of harm to any person or the risk of an escape from a jail or correctional institution or facility.

(e-9) Records requested by a person in a county jail or committed to the Department of Corrections containing personal information pertaining to the person's victim or the victim's family, including, but not limited to, a victim's home address, home telephone number, work or school address, work telephone number, social security number, or any other identifying information, except as may be relevant to a requester's current or potential case or claim.

(e-10) Law enforcement records of other persons requested by a person committed to the Department of Corrections or a county jail, including, but not limited to, arrest and booking records, mug shots, and crime scene photographs, except as these records may be relevant to the requester's current or potential case or claim.

Section 7(e-5) and 7(e-6) were also amended to exempt records requested from persons committed to a county jail if those materials are available in the library of the jail, or if the records include records from staff member’s personnel files, rosters, or assignment information.  Previously, Sections 7(e-5) and 7(e-6) only applied to records requested from inmates committed to the Department of Corrections. 

The goal of these amendments is to prevent FOIA from being used for harassment purposes.  Public bodies may wish to review any exemptions listed in their FOIA policies to determine whether these new exemptions should be added.

Post Authored by Erin Pell, Ancel Glink

Thursday, August 17, 2017

2 Bills Would Prohibit County "Pop" Taxes

Likely in response to the backlash from Cook County's' "pop tax" (the tax imposed on all sweetened beverages (sugar and artificial sweeteners), two bills were recently introduced in the Illinois House that would prohibit home-rule and non-home rule counties in Illinois from taxing sweetened beverages. 

If House Bill 4083 passes, it would not affect Cook County's tax, which went into effect this month.   However, House Bill 4082 would invalidate any prior tax, which would seem to cover Cook County's pop tax. 

Of course, Cook County's tax is still the subject of a lawsuit, although the previous injunction has been lifted. So, there may be any number of avenues to try to get rid of this tax.

You can read House Bill 4082 here and House Bill 4083 here.

Side note:  you can usually tell if someone grew up in the Chicago area or somewhere else by the terminology they use to describe a soft drink.  Otherwise known as the pop vs. soda wars.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

PAC Finds 9-1-1 Tape Collected in an Active Criminal Investigation is Not Exempt

The Public Access Counselor (PAC) just issued its 11th binding opinion for 2017. In PAC Op. 17-011, the PAC found a public body in violation of FOIA for denying a request made by a reporter for a 9-1-1 tape involving the death of a child. 

The public body had denied the request based on a number of FOIA exemptions, including that release of the tape would impede an active investigation into the child's death under section 7(d)(vii). That exemption exempts from release records compiled by a law enforcement agency that, if disclosed, would obstruct an ongoing criminal investigation. Although the public body provided a detailed explanation as to why the release of the 9-1-1 call that was made by a person of interest in the criminal investigation could impede that investigation, the PAC rejected that argument, finding that the public body had failed to provide clear and convincing evidence that the tape should be exempt. Interestingly, the PAC made its own determination that the tape was a "limited" part of the criminal investigation.

The PAC also rejected the public body's use of the "private information" exemption. The public body had argued that the audio recording qualified as "biometric information" that is exempt under section 7(1)(b) of FOIA. The PAC rejected that argument, finding that an audio recording of a voice does not constitute a "voiceprint" that would qualify as biometric information since "voiceprint" is defined under state statute as an analysis or measurement of a person's voice.

In my opinion, the PAC's conclusion on the use of the biometric exemption appears consistent with the definition of biometric information, but the PAC may have gone too far in deciding, on a public body's behalf, what records collected as part of a criminal investigation could, if released, obstruct an active criminal investigation. 

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf

Monday, August 14, 2017

Illinois Election Day Voter Registration Upheld

On August 4th, 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a preliminary injunction that had been previously granted regarding the same-day voter registration law, finding no evidence that allowing same-day voter registration in large Illinois counties discriminates against voters in small counties. Harlan v. Scholz (7th Cir. 2017)
Harlan, a Republican candidate for Illinois congress, sued the Illinois State Board of Elections in 2016, claiming the state law guaranteeing same day registration for high population counties violated due process by disproportionately benefiting Democrats. The law provided that counties with a population of over 100,000 must allow citizens to register when voting, while smaller counties can decide whether to provide the service. According to the case, there are only 20 Illinois counties that provide same day registration, but these 20 counties account for about 84% of Illinois’ total population.

Harlan argued that the law was unconstitutional because it gave larger counties more options of implementing registration and voting, and that these counties tended to have a disproportionate number of Democrat voters. The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled in Harlan's favor, partly based on Harlan's expert witness testimony about urban voters. 

In reversing the District Court, the Seventh Circuit found that Harlan failed to show that "Election-Day registration in Illinois’ 20 more heavily populated counties is more likely to increase voter participation than centralized Election-Day registration in the smaller counties..." The Seventh Circuit also held that the law “does not force quite as many options on the smaller counties as it does on the 20 largest counties, it permits every county to adopt the default same-day rules, and it provides realistic same-day options even in the smaller places. This, coupled with the lack of any data about which groups are disadvantaged and how, dooms the injunction.”

Post Authored by Jack Takiguchi & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Law Prohibiting Ballot Selfies Unconstitutional

In Illinois, it is illegal to take a "ballot selfie" - i.e., taking a photo of yourself with your ballot. The statute makes it a Class 4 criminal felony for “any person who knowingly marks his ballot or casts his vote on a voting machine or voting device so that it can be observed by another person.” The purpose of the law is to prevent ballot tampering, exposure, or vote monitoring but it has also been interpreted to prohibit individuals from taking a photograph of their ballot and then publicizing that photograph (usually on social media). Last week, a trial court judge in Madison County declared that law unconstitutional.

The Illinois General Assembly is considering a bill to address "ballot selfies." House Bill 388 has passed the Illinois house and is pending in the senate. If passed, the statute would be amended to expressly allow a person to take a photograph of his or her own ballot during the voting process, so long as they aren't receiving any payment for doing so. The underlined language below is the proposed amendment:
(10 ILCS 5/29-9)  (from Ch. 46, par. 29-9) 
Sec. 29-9. Unlawful observation of voting. Except as  permitted by this Code, any person who knowingly marks his ballot or casts his vote on a voting machine or voting device so that it can be observed by another person, and any person who knowingly observes another person lawfully marking a ballot or lawfully casting his vote on a voting machine or voting  device, shall be guilty of a Class 4 felony. Nothing in this Section shall prohibit a person from photographing his or her own ballot at any time during the voting process or from viewing a photograph of a completed or partially completed ballot; however, a person who gives, promises to give, or receives any money or other valuable consideration in connection with the dissemination or viewing of such a photograph shall be guilty of a Class 4 felony.
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf

Read more here: http://www.bnd.com/news/local/article165520627.html#storylink=cpy

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Pension Fund Found to Impair Pensioner's Rights to Benefits

In an 86 page opinion, an Illinois Appellate Court determined that a municipality's pension fund was underfunded to the point of being "on the verge of default or imminent bankruptcy," in violation of the Illinois constitution. The court also held that the municipality's actions in failing to adequately fund the pension fund violated state law and a previous settlement agreement between the municipality and the pension fund, and entitled the pension fund to damages, among other relief. Pension Fund vs. City of Harvey.

The appellate court goes into great detail about the facts leading up to the lawsuit, as well as the testimony of the various experts and others relating to the underfunding claims by the pension fund. According to the opinion, in some years, the municipality did not appropriate any funds for the pension fund. In others, the municipality appropriated some funds. In all years relevant to the lawsuit, the money going out from the pension fund to retirees exceeded the funds going into the fund, both by the participants and the municipality. 

The opinion addresses a variety of arguments and issues relating to funding of a pension fund, but one of the most interesting issues addressed by the court is its interpretation of a fund being "on the verge of default or imminent bankruptcy." That phrase comes from the legislative history of Article 13, Section 5 of the Illinois constitution, the constitutional provision that provides that membership in a pension fund is "an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired." Testimony about this particular provision of the Illinois constitution included a discussion of what "impair" means, and included the following discussion:
The word "impair" is meant to imply and to intend that if a pension fund would be on the verge of default or imminent bankruptcy, a group action could be taken to show that these rights should be preserved.
No court had made a determination that a particular pension fund fell within this standard, although the appellate court discussed cases that had referenced this language.

In applying this standard to the pension fund at issue in Harvey, the court first acknowledged that the fund was not in bankruptcy. However, the court noted that the language used in this standard was "on the verge of" rather than requiring an actual bankruptcy proceeding. The appellate court held that Harvey's pension fund met the standard because the evidence submitted at the trial court demonstrated that the pension fund would not be able to pay out benefits in as little as five years and that the fund would likely reach a point where the municipality could not make enough contributions to meet the pension fund obligations. The court acknowledged that pension funds are not entitled to a specific mandatory funding level and that the level of funding is discretionary. However, the evidence submitted at trial showed that Harvey had contributed less than 10% of the annual actuarial requirement in 6 out of 9 years, putting the fund "on the verge of default" and giving rise to a constitutional claim by pensioners that its benefits were being impaired.

In its conclusion, the appellate court upheld the trial court's rulings in favor of the pension fund, including an order that Harvey levy funds adequate to meet its pension obligations.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf

Monday, August 7, 2017

Court Upholds Ordinance Restricting Commercial Activity in Neighborhood Park

Recently, a federal appeals court upheld the constitutionality of a municipal ordinance that prohibited commercial activity in a park without a permit against a challenge by a commercial photographer.  Havlak v. Village of Twin Oaks, no. 16-3377 (8th Cir. July 25, 2017).  

The Village Board of Twin Oaks enacted an ordinance to protect a newly dedicated neighborhood park. That ordinance prohibited activities such as obstructing walkways, motorized vehicles, hunting and all commercial activities. After the park was upgraded in 2011, it began to attract significantly more visitors, including commercial photographers who began using the park as a back drop for weddings and other types of photo shoots.  In response to complaints of the increased activity within the park, the Village Board put up signs notifying visitors of the long-established ordinance prohibiting commercial activity within the park.  Subsequently, a commercial photographer filed suit seeking to prevent the enforcement of the ordinance and alleging that the ordinance was a violation of her First Amendment rights.

In response to the lawsuit, the Village Board amended the ordinance to create a permit process for commercial use, which included automatic approval for events with 10 persons or less, lasting less than one hour and with a 48 hour advance notice period.  For larger or longer events, the permit process allowed the Board to consider factors relating to government interests, such as the disruptive impact of the activity, potential damage of the activity and whether the activity will cause congestion in the park.  The permit process also included a $100 fee to pay for police oversight of the activity.  

The appellate court ultimately held that, though the First Amendment applies to municipal ordinances, municipalities still have the authority to “regulate competing uses of a traditional public forum, like a park, by imposing a permit requirement.”  The Court found that the challenged ordinance was content-neutral, narrowly-tailored and met the constitutional standards regarding regulations on time, place and manner.  

The reasoning behind the Court’s decision is largely based on the premise that the ordinance was enacted to serve a significant government interest of maintaining the park and was content neutral since it prohibited all commercial activity, rather that any particular commercial activity or message. The Court found that there were also several other alternatives for the photographer to communicate her message since she hardly used the park before she heard about the Village’s ordinance.  Furthermore, the permit process established did not give “unbridled discretion to the Village to approve or deny permits. Instead, the court found that the ordinance provides “articulated standards” and “objective factors” that the clerk and the Board are to consider when granting permits.” 

Post Authored by Katie O'Grady, Ancel Glink

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Two Recent Cases Address Municipality's Duty in Slip/Trip and Fall Cases

Two recent appellate decisions provide some guidance to Illinois local governments on "slip and fall"  or "trip and fall" lawsuits against public bodies.

In the first case, the Second District ruled in favor of a municipality in a case involving a slip and fall on an allegedly unnatural accumulation of ice. Knuth (the plaintiff) had just started working as a salesman at a car dealership located next to a Village water tower. At the end of his shift, Knuth went to the back of the car dealership property to make sure all the car doors were locked. The dealership property line meets the gravel walkway to the water tower. Knuth claimed he slipped on ice “in or near the area where the asphalt pavement ends and the gravel walkway surface commences.” 

Both parties hired experts to determine if snow on top of the water tower melted and subsequently froze (snow-migration theory) or if the downward slope of the tower to the dealership caused the unnatural accumulation of ice (water-migration theory). The Village argued it had no duty to monitor and remediate accumulations of snow and ice on neighboring properties. The Village alternatively argued it had immunity under sections 2-109 and 2-201 of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employee Tort Immunity Act, which immunize the discretionary actions of government employees. Specifically, the Village argued that any preventative measures to remove snow from the water tower or warning the dealership that snow could blow onto its property would still require a Village employee to exercise discretion in determining whether such a policy is appropriate and if so, the means and methods of carrying out such a program.

Ultimately, the appellate court ruled in favor of the Village, finding that there was insufficient evidence that the Village's actions caused plaintiff's fall.  Knuth v. Village of Antioch, et al., 2017 IL App (2d) 160961-U.

The second case involved another slip and fall - this time on a street. Lewis v. City of Chicago, 2017 IL App (1st) 16-1888-U. This case provides a pretty thorough analysis into the Tort Immunity Act and various exceptions. 

Lewis was exiting a CTA bus when he stepped into pothole, injuring his ankle. According to the case, the bus stopped one foot away from the curb, and Lewis exited the rear exit of the bus as opposed to the exit near the driver. The pothole that Lewis stepped in was not in a crosswalk and was half covered by the bus, so Lewis could not see the pothole until he was on the ground. 

The City argued it was immune under Section 3-102 of the Tort Immunity Act because Lewis was not an intended and permitted user of the street. The appellate court agreed, finding that since Lewis was outside of the crosswalk when he fell into the pothole and injured his ankle, he was not an intended user of the street. Courts have made it clear in numerous cases that streets are intended for vehicular traffic and not by pedestrians, meaning there is no duty owed to pedestrians who attempt to cross streets outside of the crosswalk. In fact, courts have repeatedly held that no duty exists for a municipality when a pedestrian exits a city bus onto a street instead of onto the curb or sidewalk. Thus, the Courts continue providing immunity even when pedestrians, for a variety of reasons, encounter difficulties requiring them to walk on the street outside of the cross walk.

Post Authored by Christy Michaelson, Ancel Glink

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Elected Official Violated First Amendment in Blocking Person from Facebook

Many elected officials across the country use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites to engage with their constituents. Because the majority of these sites are not administered and moderated by government employees and instead are moderated solely by the elected official, many elected officials probably consider their social media sites to be "personal accounts" that would not be subject to First Amendment scrutiny. 

In a recent case out of Virginia, however, a court determined that the Facebook account of the chairman of a county board of supervisors was subject to the First Amendment, and that the chairman's actions in blocking a person from posting on that account violated that person's free speech rights. Davison v. Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. While this district court case case is out of Virginia, it could be persuasive to other courts across the country, including the federal district court that will consider the lawsuit brought against President Trump by persons who were blocked from his Twitter account.

The Loudoun County Board Chairman had established a Facebook page called "Chair Phyllis J. Randall." According to the court order, the chair had "plenary control" over her Facebook page; however, her chief of staff also was named as an administrator of the Facebook account. The account was created outside of the County's official channels, and the chair and her chief of staff posted to the account only from their personal devices. The court noted in its opinion that many of the posts on the Facebook page relate to the defendant's work as chair of the county board, including county board meetings, events, and activities. 

After a town hall meeting at which plaintiff Davison attended and asked a question, Davison posted a comment to the chair's Facebook page, alleging corruption and conflicts of interest of school board members. Shortly thereafter, the chair removed her original post, as well as Davison's comments, and then banned Davison from her Facebook page. The following morning, she reconsidered her decision to ban him and "unbanned" him. Davison sued, claiming that the chair violated his First Amendment free speech rights. 

The district court first analyzed the chair's Facebook page to determine whether (1) the chair was acting in her official capacity and (2) the page was a "forum" that would implicate First Amendment protections.  

First, the court determined that the chair used her Facebook page as a "tool of governance" to keep constituents informed of county activities and to solicit feedback from constituents. Second, the court found that the chair did use county resources to support her page by giving her chief of staff access to post on the page. Third, the court stated that official newsletters from the county promoted the chair's Facebook page. Fourth, the court determined that the Facebook page itself included numerous references to the chair's office, including referencing her title; categorizing the page as that of a government official; referencing official county contact information; linking to the county's website; and that the majority of posts related to county board matters. Fifth, the specific act of banning Davison from the chair's Facebook page arose out of "public, not personal, circumstances." 

The court concluded that the chair was acting in her official capacity and had opened up a public forum on Facebook, although it did not specify what type of forum (i.e., traditional, limited, or non-public forum) because it held that the chair engaged in "viewpoint" discrimination that is prohibited in all forums by banning Davison from her page because of his critical comments. The court noted that the chair had not adopted or applied a neutral comment policy and, instead, had simply removed comments and banned Davison because she was offended by his post, which constituted viewpoint discrimination. 

In conclusion, the court held that the chair violated Davison's free speech rights by removing his comments and banning him. However, because the ban was short-lived, the court noted that the consequences of the ban were fairly minor, and they did not warrant injunctive or other relief. 

Elected officials who operate social media pages to connect with constituents and comment on government activities should be aware of this case, and be on notice that removing critical comments or banning persons from their pages might constitute a First Amendment violation. 

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf