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Washington state politician sued for blocking constituents on his Facebook page – October 2018

Tacoma, WA

Two residents of Washington state’s 19th Legislative District sued State Representative Jim Walsh in federal court for blocking them from his Facebook page.

Key Players

Jim Walsh is a Republican member of the Washington State House of Representatives for the 19th Legislative District, which borders Oregon in the southwestern-most corner of the state. He was accused of violating two constituents’ First Amendment rights by blocking them from his Facebook page.

Jeff Nichols and Gilbert Myers are Washington state residents who filed a lawsuit against Walsh for blocking them on his Facebook page.

Further Details

Nichols and Myers filed the lawsuit against Walsh on October 24, 2018. It asserts that they were blocked from Walsh’s page after posting provocative comments there, including a link to Walsh’s legislative voting record uploaded by the Washington State AFL-CIO. Once they were blocked, Nichols and Myers were unable to comment or react to Walsh’s posts, and found that their comments on previous posts on his page had been deleted.

Walsh, however, saw the situation differently. “This is a stunt they played where they got on my campaign page and behaved uncivilly,” he said. “I warned them to stop it and they did not, so I blocked them, as I would with anyone who behaved that way.”

The timing of the suit seemed suspicious to Walsh, who was up for reelection when it was filed. Not only was his seat one of several that Republicans were trying to defend in the 2018 midterm elections, but Nichols was the president of the Washington State AFL-CIO, and Myers was a campaign staffer for Democrat Teresa Purcell, who had narrowly lost to Walsh two years earlier.  

The lawsuit came months after a federal court in New York ruled that President Donald Trump could not block people from expressing their views on his Twitter feed, because his account is a public forum. And it came roughly a year after the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Washington State lawmakers, including Walsh, informing them that blocking or censoring constituents on social media was a violation of the First Amendment. The suit claims that, like Trump’s Twitter account, Walsh’s Facebook page constitutes a public forum.

Officially, the Jim Walsh Facebook page is listed as a political page, and it frequently features political updates and policy announcements from Walsh himself. On this point, Billie R. Morelli, the lawyer for Nichols and Myers, wrote in a statement that “Walsh may feel the First Amendment does not apply while running for re-election. However a cursory look at his Facebook page makes clear he has used the page in his official capacity as representative for years to communicate . . . long before any campaigning this current election season.”  

Walsh responded that he respects other opinions as long as they are expressed in a civil manner, and that “these two gentlemen did not keep it civil, and they know it.” He declined to share the screenshots he claimed to possess that depict their unruly comments and reactions.

Outcome

Walsh wins reelection bid

On November 6, 2018, Walsh defeated Democrat Erin Frasier and kept his seat, capturing 50.43% of the vote. Walsh’s victory came amidst a wave of Democratic victories in the state. On October 25, Judge Theresa Fricke issued a summons to Walsh, but no court date has been publicly set for the lawsuit to proceed.

External References

Complaint for Injunctive Relief filed on behalf of Jeff Nichols and Gilbert Myers.

Lawmaker sued for banning 2 constituents from Facebook page.

Nov. 6 General Election Results

Justia: Nichols et al. v Walsh.

Prepared by Gustav Honl-Stuenkel ‘20

Uploaded to tracker: January 19, 2019