A Vermillion man filed a lawsuit last week alleging that state Senator Stace Nelson violated his constitutional rights by blocking the man's account and deleting his comments on a Facebook page.
A complaint filed by Jeffrey Church on Dec. 3 alleges Nelson, R-Fulton, who announced his resignation as senator for South Dakota's 19th district on Nov. 17 and whose final day in the position will be Tuesday, slandered and attempted to silence Church after he was critical of statements made by Nelson.
On Sept. 7, according to the complaint, Nelson posted a poll on what Church said is a public Facebook page. As of Monday morning, The Daily Republic was unable to locate the page or post named in the complaint, but the complaint states that the page in question identifies itself as a political organization and includes posts and discussion about the South Dakota legislature and other areas of public interest.
The poll posted in September, according to the complaint, asked, "Do you support SD elected Legislators, abdicating their elected legislative responsibilities to unknown, unelected delegate(s) to go to an unknown location, and advocate for unknown changes to the US Constitution (one such proposed agenda change is REPEAL your 2nd Amendment) at a 'Constitutional Convention' (aka 'Con Con,' Article V, etc)?"
Church alleges that he commented critically on the poll, and Nelson then deleted the comment. Nelson and Church then directed additional comments at each other on the poll post, after which Nelson is reportedly deleted comments from other posts and blocked Church from the Facebook page. Church alleges in the complaint that Nelson has blocked and deleted comments from other Facebook users who have made critical comments on the page.
The complaint does not include the content of comments made by Church, other than a reply to Nelson's comment asking, "Is there a reason I can no longer comment on most of this page? You call me out by name on here, like you did at your Lincoln Day dinner speech, and then I can't respond."
Quoted in the complaint are a number of comments by Nelson that Church alleges were directed at him, including one stating, "Jeff Church I don't care for you. You have proven yourself a coward and a liar. This will be the last I waste of my personal time responding to you. You are not welcome here and neither is your dishonesty. Take further comments to your own FB page."
Though Nelson's comments referenced in the complaint assert that the page which Church was blocked from was Nelson's personal page, Church argues in his complaint that Nelson's actions on the Facebook page violated the First and 14th amendments by placing restrictions on participation in a public forum and the ability of Church and others to petition the government for redress of grievances.
Church's case was filed about a year and a half after a second-circuit case in the U.S. Court of Appeals determined that President Donald Trump's Twitter account was a presidential account, rather than a personal one, constituting a designated public forum.
That court's decision ruled citizens' First Amendment rights were violated when Trump blocked them on the social media platform, and that the same would be true of any public official's Twitter account. The order granting summary judgment does not explicitly state that similar principles would apply to Facebook specifically or to social media at large.
Arguing that Nelson might continue "unconstitutional viewpoint and content-based discrimination," Church requested the federal court hear the case on an expedited basis.
Church is requesting a declaration from the court saying Nelson violated his constitutional rights, an injunction to prohibit Nelson from blocking or deleting comments from Church or others, repayment of costs involved in the lawsuit and other relief to be determined at a jury trial.
Nelson's attorney, R. Shawn Tornow, said he would not comment on the case until after the complaint is served, and Church's attorney, Alex Hagen, declined to speak on the record about the case.