CHIPLEY - A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday alleges the Washington County Clerk of Court's Office violated the First and Fourteenth Constitutional Amendments by deleting comments and blocking access to the office's Facebook page, which the clerk's office suspended in October 2016.
The suit, filed by attorney Tiffany R. Cruz of Tallahassee on behalf local attorney Michelle Jordan, names Clerk of Court Lora C. Bell and Clerk Executive Assistant Shawna Faison as defendants in both their individual and official capacities.
The complaint alleges Clerk Bell and Faison violated the First Amendment by deleting comments from the page that criticized the office and violated the Fourteenth by banning users from the page - which had no guidelines or policies publicly available - "without due process."
Jordan, whose twin sister, Stephanie Blankenship was Bell's opponent in the 2016 Clerk of Court election, used her own personal Facebook page in September 2016 to criticize the clerk's office's hiring practices, chronicling a summary of a public records request she made to the clerk's office, as well as the clerk's office response.
According to the lawsuit's complaint, the clerk's office made a statement on its official Facebook page addressing the post on Jordan's personal social media in an effort to "correct misleading information being shared on social media."
Jordan then commented directly on the clerk's office post, recapping the post on her personal page.
The complaint states that a few minutes later, Jordan discovered her comment had been deleted and later discovered she had been banned from the page.
This is not the first time a lawsuit has been filed regarding the Clerk of Court's Facebook page. The office reached a $10,000 settlement agreement last November in a federal lawsuit that alleged the Washington County Clerk of Court’s office violated civil rights following a controversial social media post in October 2016 - a post that led to the eventual suspension of the social media page by the clerk's office.
Settled last November, that lawsuit was filed by an area resident who stated her rights were violated when she was banned from that same Facebook page after she posted a comment objecting to a photo on the site.
That suit also led to a secondary lawsuit for unlawful withholding of public records after the clerk's office asserted a complete history of Facebook posts requested by attorneys in a public records request, were unavailable. The clerk’s office ultimately agreed to a settlement of $750 in the public records suit.
The new lawsuit filed on Jordan's behalf references the same controversial post that led to the $10,000 settlement.
The new complaint states any negative comments were deleted "as quickly as they were posted."
"A Clerk of the Circuit Court is only authorized to exercise powers for a public purpose; therefore the creation of a Facebook page by the Clerk must be for public and not private purpose," reads the complaint. "… At the very least, the clerk created a limited public form in that she posted carious topics of public concern to the Facebook page and thereafter permitted … discussion by public users on those topics as long as the interactions and discussions were 'positive'. Specifically, … the clerk allowed at least seven positive comments after Jordan's comment was deleted on their [September 9] post. The clerk even responded to a particularly positive comment after Jordan's comment had been deleted by saying, 'Thank you, Connie for speaking the truth on our behalf. We love and appreciate you.' The clerk's decision to delete Jordan's critical comment but to allow positive comment on the same post constitutes prohibited viewpoint discrimination. The clerk, acting in her official capacity operating the official Facebook page, may not discriminate against political commentary critical of her official conduct."
The complaint also points out Jordan's post contained no profanity, or language that could be construed as obscene or insulting and is asking that a jury be empaneled to decide the facts in the case.
"By allowing some comments to be posted to the official Facebook page but deleting others, in particular those comments which were critical of the clerk's official conduct and actions under color of law, and further by banning those Facebook users, like Jordan, [Bell and Faison] have arbitrarily and without statutory or other authority suppressed one of the most sacred forms of free speech - speech that is critical of government."
The Washington County Clerk's Office states it has not yet officially received a summons and therefore cannot yet comment on the allegations.