Federal Judge Kristine Baker today refused to dismiss Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) as an individual defendant in the lawsuit over his blocking commenters on his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Her order affirmed that he enjoyed “qualified immunity” as a public official, meaning the plaintiffs could not receive monetary damages if found to have violated the plaintiffs’ free speech rights but said he could still be sued as an individual for continuing to block the plaintiffs. He claimed the statute of limitations barred their suit, but the judge said each day they continue to be barred amounts to a continuing rights violation. She hasn’t yet ruled on the merits.
The judge also held that the American Atheists Inc. had standing to sue for its members because it was seeking prospective relief, if not money damages.
The American Atheists issued a news release cheering the decision.
“Jason Rapert’s legal arguments never held water, and now the court has told him so. Our clients are already preparing for their day in court, and I expect the court to ultimately grant us the injunction we are seeking. Rapert will have to respect the First Amendment rights of his constituents and of all Arkansans,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, Litigation Counsel at American Atheists.
In 2018, American Atheists filed the lawsuit on behalf of its members in Arkansas, including four individual plaintiffs, whom Sen. Rapert unconstitutionally blocked from his official Facebook and Twitter accounts after they criticized his positions on several issues, including abortion and government endorsements of Christianity. American Atheists’ complaint also alleges that Rapert blocked the plaintiffs due to their atheism. In November of this year, Sen. Rapert introduced an outright abortion ban without exceptions for rape and incest, which he described as “the trigger” to overturn Roe v. Wade.
In a tweet from 2014, Cathey Shoshone, one of the plaintiffs, suggested that Rapert support easy access to birth control: “That’s how you s[l]ow down abortion. How do you not see that?” Robert Barringer, another named plaintiff, was blocked by Rapert after pointing out that the Bible contains instructions for causing abortions in Numbers, a passage often referred to as the “Test for an Unfaithful Wife.”
Last year, Jason Rapert announced plans to run for lieutenant governor in 2022. Also last year, Judge Baker noted in a previous decision that American Atheists has a “fair chance of prevailing” in the current lawsuit. “If Sen. Rapert becomes lieutenant governor, our victory in this case would follow him. He’d be accountable to the entire state of Arkansas and be under even more intense scrutiny,” said Blackwell.
“As lieutenant governor, Rapert must represent all Arkansans—not just extremists who share his Christian nationalist worldview,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “This case is a loud signal to theocratic, totalitarian officials: You don’t have the right to shut down debate and target people for their religion or lack thereof, period.”
No eruption from Rapert yet on Facebook, maybe because he’s too busy erupting about the U.S. Supreme Court, same-sex marriage and Planned Parenthood. Same on Twitter.
UPDATE: Rapert did not disappoint.
Psalm 43:1 “Judge me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation: O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man.”
The @AmericanAtheist may think they have won a battle against me, but they will not win the war. I am resolved to stand against evil https://t.co/1YteufZVcV https://t.co/sDcRf8T3jh
— Jason Rapert (@jasonrapert) December 16, 2020
But wait. Is there a method in his madness? A couple of people report being unblocked on Twitter today.
Oh boy! This prompted me to check on my “blocked by Rapert” status and I’ve found out that he’s unblocked me!
— Will Anthony (@will_anthony) December 16, 2020