A federal lawsuit was filed Tuesday against long-serving state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Bigelow, by local members of national atheist group who say the Arkansas lawmaker violated their constitutional rights by blocking them on social media.
Betty Jo Fernau, Catherine Shoshone, Robert Barringer and Karen Dempsey, all members of American Atheists Inc., filed the civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas against the Faulkner County Republican lawmaker for violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Arkansas state law.
The 56-page, filed on behalf of American Atheists members in Arkansas, including the four plaintiffs, say they were unconstitutionally blocked from Rapert’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts after they expressed viewpoints different than his on several issues. According to the complaint, Rapert also blocked the plaintiffs due to their atheist views. The four plaintiffs are asking for a jury trial and seeking a court order to participate on the Arkansas senator’s social media forums. The suit is also requesting nominal and punitive damages, as well as attorney’s fees.
“The senator’s conduct constitutes viewpoint discrimination, which is prohibited under the First Amendment. Government officials cannot take hostile actions — like limiting participation in public forums — against someone simply because they have different beliefs,” said Alison Gill, American Atheists’ legal and policy director. “These forums include social media accounts used by public officials for government purposes.”
In making their federal case, the plaintiffs argue that social media platforms have become vital tools for Americans to obtain news and information about government activities, as well as important public forums for discussions with and about elected officials.
“Lawmakers who hope to capitalize on their positions in order to impose their religious beliefs on others take advantage of the tools provided by social media platforms in order to silence constituents who speak out in defense of the separation between religion and government,” the federal complaint states. “Defendant Stanley Jason Rapert has repeatedly deleted the comments of critics and restricted the participation of individuals critical of his statements and policy positions in public forums on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. This practice constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and violates other constitutional protections.”
Added American Atheists President Nick Fish: “The Supreme Court has been clear that social media platforms are perhaps the most powerful mechanisms for citizens to make their voices heard. And now multiple federal courts have ruled that blocking citizens from participating in this forum is an unconstitutional violation of their freedom of speech.”
Little Rock attorney Matt Campbell, who runs a blog often critical of Rapert’s legislation actions, views and social media posts, is serving as local counsel in the federal lawsuit. He said the state senator’s comments on social media demonstrate that the lawmaker is “motivated by animus toward atheists and those who support the constitutional separation of religion and government.”
Sen. Rapert posted this statement on his Facebook page: “I was informed today that the American Atheists have filed a lawsuit against me in federal court. They have coordinated a few atheists in our state to use their names to file what I believe will be proven to be a frivolous lawsuit against me for political purposes. I also have evidence linking at least one person connected with the lawsuit to the man who was recently arrested, convicted and sentenced to jail for filing a false police report against me in January of 2017.
“There is no doubt that this is a politically motivated lawsuit intended to silence me as a Christian conservative representing the people of Arkansas in the Arkansas Senate. The American Atheists and other extremists have been trying to tarnish my reputation and have defamed my good name, our business and our ministry for several years now. They do this for one simple reason – I stand up for the values of average ordinary Arkansas people who still believe in God and our great country. I will not be intimidated by their tactics and will stand strong in the face of these frivolous allegations. Just as we have seen extremists trying to destroy Judge Brett Kavanaugh because he represents conservative viewpoints, they are trying to destroy me and other conservatives around the nation. I will continue to stand and fight for our traditional American values, our Judeo-Christian history and heritage, and do my best to ensure that the beliefs held dear by millions of Arkansas citizens are represented in the public square. God bless Arkansas and God bless America.”
In August, Fish and traveled from American Atheists’ New Jersey headquarters to attend a rally on the State Capitol steps where a large crowd gathered with the Satanic Temple and other allied groups to protest a new Ten Commandments monument on the capitol grounds.
At that event, Satanic Temple organizers transported an 8-foot representation of the hooved foot, goat-headed deity known as Baphomet to the capitol steps for mock worship. The groups also clashed with white nationalist and other counter protestors at the rally, where they gave speeches on the rising controversy on religious liberty, and concerns that such displays as the Ten Commandments represent the government’s endorsement of religion, and therefore violate the First Amendment.
In late June, a 6,000-pound Ten Commandments replica monument was installed with concrete protectors on the southwest side of the State Capitol grounds. The original religious memorial was smashed and destroyed only 24 hours after it was installed last summer. A Van Buren man ran over the first monument and was later arrested by Little Rock police and charged with defacing an object of public interest, criminal trespass and mischief.
In early 2017, the Satanic Temple applied to a State Capitol grounds subcommittee to put a Baphomet statute with two admiring children at his side on the northeast corner of the State Capitol grounds. That proposal, however, was blocked by an emergency-session bill that requires all monuments to have legislative sponsorship, which no lawmaker has yet taken up.