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Chugiak woman sues state Sen. Reinbold over Facebook user ban, deleted comments

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: 6 days ago
  • Published April 30

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021 file photo, Alaska state Sen. Lora Reinbold, an Eagle River Republican, holds a copy of the Alaska Constitution during a committee hearing in Juneau, Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

JUNEAU — State Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, is being sued by a constituent who says Reinbold violated her free speech rights by banning her from the senator’s official Facebook page and removing comments critical of Reinbold.

With a legal complaint filed Friday in Anchorage Superior Court, Chugiak resident Bobbie McDow is seeking legal fees and an injunction against Reinbold that prevents her from removing posts that criticize her.

Reinbold said Friday morning that she was unaware of the lawsuit and couldn’t comment on it.

The suit says Reinbold has been removing comments that criticize her anti-mask viewpoint and that McDow was banned from Reinbold’s senatorial Facebook page this week.

Reinbold has been vocal in her objections to COVID-19 mitigation measures in the Alaska Capitol and in public, and was banned from Alaska Airlines last week for continuing to refuse to follow mask-wearing requirements for travelers.

The lawsuit has been tentatively assigned to Judge Andrew Guidi. McDow is being represented pro bono by Jim Davis of the Northern Justice Project, a civil rights law firm in Anchorage.

“We want a precedent whereby whether you’re Democrat or Republican or independent, you don’t get cut off from commenting like the rest of us simply because the politician in question doesn’t like what you’re saying,” Davis said.

The suit’s legal arguments echo those made in a 2017 lawsuit against then-President Donald Trump. That case argued that it was illegal for the president to block critics on Twitter. A federal district court and an appeals court sided with the plaintiffs, but the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case earlier this month after Trump had been banned from the platform and was no longer in office.

In 2019, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the official Facebook page for a local government official was considered a “public forum” under the First Amendment, and that by temporarily banning a critic from that page, the official was engaging in viewpoint discrimination — violating that individual’s free speech rights.

Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, said the legal precedent seems clear to him: “You can’t do that. That’s against the law.”

He said some senators have posted codes of conduct that allow them to remove abusive comments. Davis, representing McDow, said he doesn’t intend the lawsuit to affect that.

Reinbold’s senatorial Facebook page states in its “About” section: “Intent of page is to help educate viewers about issues facing our state. Be respectful of those posting/commenting or your comments may not be up for long. No trollers, profanity, cruelty or bullying.”

Davis said that in his view, a politician’s official Facebook page should be treated just like a town hall meeting: No one should be excluded from participating because of their views, but there should be rules for decorum.

Davis said he and McDow brought their case in state court because Alaska’s constitution has tougher protections for free speech than the U.S. Constitution does.

“I feel pretty confident that at the end of the day, whether the day lasts, you know, a year or five years, the Alaska Supreme Court will say, on these public web pages that politicians have — whether you’re the mayor of Anchorage, or the governor — if it’s going to be open to some citizens, it has to be open to all citizens,” he said.