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Arkansas Sen. Jason Rapert settles lawsuit with atheist group

Jason Rapert Ten 10 Commandments
Michael Hibblen
Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert, seen here on June 28, 2017, has agreed to a settlement in a federal lawsuit brought by an atheist group for blocking members on his public Twitter account.

Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by an atheist group whose members he had blocked on his public Twitter account. Last month, a federal judge ruled the Republican from Conway must provide information from his social media accounts for a case brought by the advocacy group American Atheists.

As part of the settlement, the state will pay $16,000 for expenses incurred by the group for legal and travel costs. In addition, Rapert will be required to unblock people from his official Twitter account associated with the lawsuit.

Rapert told KUAR News on Thursday that the lawsuit was “idiodic and frivolous.” Rapert said his attorneys were confident that if he lost the case at trial, he could win on appeal. But Rapert said he decided to accept a settlement to end the long-running litigation.

The lawsuit was filed in 2018 after Rapert began blocking some constituents from his “Rapert4Arkansas” Twitter account.

“They came to me asking to settle and I said, well I’m not admitting anything, I didn’t do anything wrong to these people,” he said.

Rapert says he does block people who use certain language.

“My page rules have been really clear. You don't cuss people, intimidate people, threaten people or purposefully spread false information. You're welcome to interact,” Rapert said.

Attorney Geoffrey Blackwell, who represents the American Atheists, says the kind of language Rapert admits to blocking is actually protected by the U.S. Constitution.

“People have the First Amendment right to use profanity, to be aggressive,” Blackwell said. “That is not unprotected speech, and he as a government official has the responsibility to refrain from silencing people for vociferously voicing their point of view.”

When asked if it's fair for the state of Arkansas to pay the $16,000 accrued in lawsuit, Blackwell had some hesitation.

“In a situation like this where it is a government official who has transgressed, I think it is the responsibility of the government to right that wrong. Whether or not public officials should have some skin in the game I think is being actively debated in the context of things like qualified immunity.”

Rapert has served in the state Senate since 2011 and his term limited from running again. He has cited his religious values while backing legislation related to abortion and the placement of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state Capitol.

Rapert ran for lieutenant governor this year and lost the Republican primary to Attorney General Leslie Rutledge after she got out of the race for governor.

One sentence has been edited out of the radio report that was broadcast to clarify that the case had not gone to trial.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.
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