CHIPLEY - A court has ruled in favor of one local attorney and against the office of the Washington County Clerk in a Facebook battle case that involves the First and Fourteenth Constitutional Amendments.
A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on late last year alleged the Washington County Clerk of Court’s Office was in violation of the Constitutional Amendments by deleting comments and blocking access to the office’s Facebook page, which the clerk’s office suspended in October 2016.
The initial suit, filed by attorney Tiffany R. Cruz of Tallahassee on behalf local attorney Michelle Jordan, named Clerk of Court Lora C. Bell and Clerk Executive Assistant Shawna Faison as defendants in both their individual and official capacities. Faison has since been dismissed from the case.
The pretrial conference, held Aug. 24, ruling grants Jordan a summary judgment on liability only and denies Bell qualified immunity. This means the case is in favor of Jordan, on the grounds that Bell's defense failed to dispute the facts of the case Jordan's team presented - essentially, that the Clerk violated her First Amendment rights. Also for Bell, it means - even though she is a government official - she will not be immune from liability for civil damages.
The only other issue remaining is for the court to determine damages, of which, Bell remains not immune in both official and sovereign capacities.
"We are happy with Judge Hinkle's ruling and we think it was the correct ruling," Cruz said, noting the facts are "simplistic."
"Viewpoint discrimination for by the government is prohibited," she said. "You can't discriminate based on viewpoint and that is the case - and that's what happened."
The complaint alleged 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 stated that a few minutes later, Jordan discovered her comment had been deleted and later discovered she had been banned from the page.
On behalf of Bell, Attorney Jason Taylor, of The Krizner Group, responded with the following:
"Certainly, the determination by the Court is not the result for which we hoped. While we respect the Court’s authority and decision, we feel the decision does not properly address the facts and the existing law and is contrary to similar cases decided in other jurisdictions," Krizner wrote in an email. "Additionally, for many aspects of the case, there are evolving issues related to First Amendment law. Accordingly, this may be a matter that requires further review. That being said, we will carefully weigh our options to decide what course of action best serves the citizens of Washington County to make the best use of those resources, which will always remain to be the first priority of our office."
A bench trail is scheduled for Sept. 5 at 9 a.m.