The two Moore County residents who are suing the Board of Education over the pending sale of the former Southern Pines primary campus now allege three school board members violated their First Amendment rights by removing critical comments posted on their social media accounts.

Last week Landon White, the attorney also representing Beth Ann Pratte and James Moore in the Southern Pines Primary case, filed a federal lawsuit against board chair Libby Carter and members Stacey Caldwell and Ed Dennison – individually and in their capacity as members of the board of directors.

The lawsuit, filed in Greensboro with the U.S. Intermediate District Court in North Carolina, concerns comments posted on the individual Facebook pages of the three board members. Carter and Caldwell both have established “official” profiles on the social media site where they share information relating to Moore County schools and school board affairs. Dennison has long used his home page to chronicle school events.

The allegations relate to comments that Pratte and Moore say they posted on these pages in August and September. This was long before they filed a first lawsuit against the pending sale of the old West Southern Pines school campus to the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust.

White unsuccessfully applied for a temporary injunction in Moore County Superior Court last month to stop the sale. While the challenge to the legality of the sale by Pratte and Moore will go to court, the school board has already approved a contract of sale and is expected to vote on the deed at its regular meeting this month.

The federal complaint about council members’ Facebook pages was filed on November 23. Pratte and Moore allege that the three-page council members are operated as a public forum and that, therefore, deleting their posts violates their right to liberty. speech.

In the lawsuit, they both allege that they were prevented from posting or otherwise interacting with Dennison’s Facebook page in August.

In Pratte’s case, the lawsuit alleges that his offensive comment was: “You are a big disappointment. You have to take a constitution course. RINO. “RINO is a common acronym in political circles for” Republican In Name Only. “

Moore says he was stranded after criticizing Dennison’s support for selling Southern Pines Primary directly to the Land Trust rather than looking for other deals. The lawsuit says Moore’s original comment was removed from the page and was subsequently blocked after contesting that removal.

“Entry never requested”

When contacted by The Pilot, Dennison said he had likely blocked over 100 Facebook users for negative posts on his page since its inception in 2008. He was first elected to the school board in 2010 and had to remove duplicate and inactive accounts to stay. under the limit of 5,000 platform friends.

Dennison said he never intended his page to serve as an open discussion forum. Recently, his main activity has been sharing photo galleries of school events he attended before the pandemic.

These photos are offered with few comments beyond “Congratulations”.

“Mainly with school stuff, it’s just taking pictures of where I’ve been, whether it’s a football game, a play, a parade, the opening of the school, pensions. I’m not even saying ‘that was a great play’ or whatever because there are so many schools, ”Dennison said.

“I have not used my Facebook page as a governance tool to inform the public about my government work, only what is happening in our schools, and I have never solicited reviews on Facebook for anything. much less a policy or whatever is going on. in schools.

But Frayda Bluestein, a professor at the UNC School of Government whose areas of expertise include local government law and ethics in government, said board members cannot individually decide what constitutes a “unacceptable” engagement in social media without an established board policy.

Such policy may include a prohibition on comments unrelated to the jurisdiction of the board, profane or obscene language, racist or otherwise discriminatory comments, advertisements, political promotions and duplicate posts by a single author.

“When the government opens a forum for expression, unless it has a policy, it creates a broad right of expression,” Bluestein said in an email to The Pilot. “Without politics, the government cannot just choose who or what it wants to hear.

Discrimination?

In a 2019 School of Government blog post, Bluestein said that there is a distinction between platforms established exclusively for one-way government communication and those that are open to public interaction, and that courts have treated social media as comparable to public comment. period of a meeting.

The plaintiffs say they both posted comments on Caldwell’s Facebook posts “criticizing the performance of the accused Caldwell as a public official” in August and September, and that the original posts were subsequently removed along with all of them. the comments attached to it.

On Carter’s official page, the lawsuit refers to a September 23 article shared on the Southern Middle School Facebook page thanking the Sandhills Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America for sponsoring a book drive to benefit the center of school media. Pratte said she commented on the post with a comment and an unrelated article “challenging a previous public statement made by Carter,” which was later deleted from the page.

Pratte and Moore claim in the lawsuit that removing their comments from board member platforms where discussion was otherwise permitted is an example of point of view discrimination. They also say the three board members denied them due process by not informing them or giving them an opportunity to appeal the deletion of their comments.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to prohibit the three board members from censoring them in the future. They are also asking for a jury trial to rule on damages.

Previous issues

This is not the first time that school board members have been challenged for removing critical comments from otherwise public social media profiles. Board member David Hensley spoke about the new trial during one of his regular appearances on WEEB, a local AM radio station.

He said he was threatened with similar lawsuits in February and March, months after serving as a board member, over other people’s comments missing from his Facebook page.

“When I received this letter, I really didn’t know. I was a newly elected public servant, nobody knew that, wow okay, ”Hensley said. “Subsequently, the school prosecutor clearly stated the law and we received training on what elected officials can and cannot do. Then even after the training, they seem to have raped him.

Most of Hensley’s posts on his school board page from this period have been deleted entirely, and many of his more recent posts are closed for comments.

The September 23 Southern Middle School post mentioned in the lawsuit remains on Carter’s page, along with two comments. Another user posted a graph highlighting the low proficiency rates in math and reading at specific grade levels in individual schools. Pratte’s response to that comment was not deleted: “When will the school board start focusing on education?” “