Mayor settles in ACLU lawsuit about Facebook use

A free-speech lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana resulted in the suspension of a local mayor’s personal Facebook account.

The lawsuit was filed in June after Franklin Mayor Steve Barnett blocked a former Franklin resident from his personal Facebook page. The former resident, William “Billy” Reynolds, posted a 92-second video May 13 of Barnett at a Black Lives Matter rally, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

The video, posted in the Franklin Equity and Justice Coalition Facebook Group, begins with the city logo and presents claims about what the city stands for, including standing with science, the Black Lives Matter movement, immigrants and LGBTQIA+ residents. The clip shows video footage of Barnett and photos of him and local law enforcement officials holding up signs during a 2020 BLM protest outside the Johnson County Courthouse. It ends with the mayor’s office phone number and a message to call with questions about the city’s diversity efforts.

After the video was posted, Barnett untagged himself, but Reynolds tagged him again, according to the lawsuit.

Barnett untagged himself a second time and blocked Reynolds from seeing content posted on his page and removing his ability to tag him in future posts, the lawsuit said.

Reynolds remained blocked when the lawsuit was filed.

The ACLU argued Barnett used his Facebook page as a tool to communicate about the city and his work as mayor, therefore he cannot restrict the right of the public to see his posts. Barnett identified himself as the mayor on his profile, posted during work hours and posted frequently about happenings in the city, according to the lawsuit.

Barnett was commonly tagged by others in his official capacity, and had not taken action to omit other photos of himself, the lawsuit said.

The move violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the ACLU said.

Barnett’s attorney and the ACLU recently reached a settlement, and Barnett deactivated his Facebook account. It is the outcome Barnett wanted, he said.

He was already considering getting rid of his Facebook account, and felt that fighting to keep an account he didn’t really want was not worth the cost or effort.

“If we wanted to fight the case, we feel like we could win. But I didn’t want to spend taxpayer dollars on this, especially since I didn’t want to be on Facebook,” he said.

When a Facebook page is deactivated, it still exists, but it is not active and cannot be viewed or tagged by other Facebook users. Per the settlement, Barnett’s page must remain inactive until he leaves the office of mayor and he may not establish any new Facebook pages or accounts.

“As social media sites have increasingly become go-to platforms for personal and political engagement, political leaders are turning to Facebook and Twitter to communicate with their constituents,” Gavin M. Rose, a senior attorney at the ACLU of Indiana, said in a statement. “If an elected representative has an official Facebook page where they invite comments, they cannot block constituents from engaging in public conversation because of their viewpoints.”

Barnett may keep and use Facebook pages for his campaign and racing business, as long as those are not used for official purposes, the settlement says.

The settlement does not affect the city’s Facebook page, which is maintained by city employees and the mayor, and there are no allegations of misuse relating to that page.