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Loudoun resident files civil rights suits against county officials over social media censorship

Brian Davison lives in Lansdowne and frequently attends School Board and Board of Supervisors meetings. File Photo
If Loudoun County government officials want to tell the public about an upcoming Board of Supervisors committee meeting, they turn to Facebook.

When the threat of inclement weather looms, the county’s official Facebook page is there to provide the community with tips on how to prepare.

Virtually all county entities and elected officials use social media to communicate with constituents.

But just as simple as it is for county leaders to send their message out with the click of a button, they can swiftly manage who can respond to those messages, and, in some cases, they may have gone too far in deleting and blocking constituents.

Loudoun County resident Brian Davison says he has been the victim of social media censorship by various county arms, and he believes his right to free speech was infringed upon.

Over the last two years, Davison has filed three separate Civil Rights lawsuits against the Loudoun Board of Supervisors and Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large), Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman (R) and the Loudoun County School Board for either blocking him from their Facebook pages or deleting critical comments he posted.

When he sought an answer from School Board members about a Freedom of Information Act he filed for the school system’s student growth percentile (SGP) scores, he says his comments on several board member’s Facebook pages were deleted, and he was blocked.

When Davison posted a Facebook comment on the Commonwealth’s Attorney's Office Facebook page accusing Plowman's office of refusing to investigate perjury from LCPS, he was blocked and his comment deleted.

Loudoun County Government also may have deleted Davison's comments when he criticized County Attorney Leo Roger’s determination that a text spat between supervisors did not violate the Virginia Freedom of Information Act laws, although, in that case, Facebook has admitted it may have deleted the comment without any involvement of the county.

Davison also says he was temporarily blocked from what he believes is Chairwoman Phyllis Randall’s official Facebook page.

Davison thinks citizens of all perspectives have the right to engage in dialogue on public social media pages of government officials.

“Political speech is the most protected speech in this country's founding,” Davison said. “Anybody can go to a park or public sidewalk and advocate for change both complementing government officials as well as criticizing them.”

But the Lansdowne resident thinks many Loudoun County officials see themselves as being “above the law.” Davison says he wants to hold them accountable by getting federal written opinion on how elected officials should respect the First Amendment on social media.

And it turns out Davison’s story may not be unique.

A regional debate

Similar disputes have been occurring between elected officials and constituents around the region.

In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s office has come under fire for blocking and deleting the comments of at least 450 people from his social media page.

According to media reports, the banning and deleted social media comments on his posts increased after Hogan was inundated with requests to denounce President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban.

The governor’s aides reportedly began unblocking people from his Facebook page after the American Civil Liberties Union criticized his office for censoring comments critical of his actions.

Virginia Congressman Scott Taylor (R) has also been blasted by critics who say the representative has blocked their comments on his personal Facebook page.

According to County Spokesperson Glen Barbour, the county is aware of at least one other individual who was temporarily banned from commenting on the county’s Facebook page and have also deleted two or three people’s comments because they were deemed in violation of its social media comments policy.

LCPS Spokesperson Wayde Byard said the school system has blocked about 10 people from its Facebook page since 2012 and has hidden comments in the past because they were deemed obscene or advertising business.

Byard admits, LCPS has also hidden some of Davison’s comments because they contained links to Google documents and the school system could not verify the security of those links.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Spokesperson Heather Williamson declined to provide a figure and said it would be “inappropriate to discuss pending litigation.”

Grey legal area

With the rise of the Internet and politicians taking to social media to interact with people, free speech in the cyber sphere has created somewhat of grey area around the First Amendment.

Some of the uncharted areas rest on the interpretation of a “limited public forum” -- a space in which the government has designated as open to certain groups and topics. With social media, the question becomes does an official have the right to censor someone’s viewpoint on that social media page at their own discretion? And is a social media page the equivalent of a public meeting?

In Davison's cases, the question the federal district court is grappling with is whether government policy applied to a specific government website creates a “metaphysical” limited public forum for first amendment purposes.

But the arguments vary.

“It’s a developing area of law. It’s like welcome to the Internet,” James W. Hundley, the lawyer representing the Loudoun commonwealth’s attorney, told the Times-Mirror.

Hundley argued on behalf of Plowman that official Facebook pages open to the public should be deemed limited public forums under the First Amendment, which the government has a right to regulate to ensure it is limited to the specific purpose it was set up for.

The ACLU sees the free speech debate on social media forums differently.

“When someone presents a Facebook page that is opened to the public and allows for comment, particularly if it’s not something that Facebook or Twitter or any kind of social media site already rejects … if the person essentially opens it up, so that comments can be taken from the public, then you can’t as a government official simply bar an individual speaker from making a certain comments,” Leslie Mehta, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia, told the Times-Mirror.

Mehta argues that if a government official opens up “broad participation” from the public, the person is creating a “public space” for people to comment. If they do not allow certain posts of a particular viewpoint, she says the official could potentially be engaging in “viewpoint discrimination.”

Mehta says a social media page is essentially the same as a public meeting.

Hundley, however, says he does not believe Davison’s constitutional rights were violated in any way. He notes that Plowman has since taken steps to restore Davison’s ability to comment on the commonwealth’s attorney Facebook page.

Previously, the county adhered to a social media policy that, among several guidelines, reserved them the right to delete comments officials deemed “clearly off topic.”

Over the course of Plowman’s court proceedings, his office initiated an amendment to the county’s social media policy. The latest version of that policy, amended last year, no longer allows county officials to delete comments they think are off topic.

“I don’t think Mr. Davison’s rights were ever infringed upon. Certainly in the future they’re not going to be,” Hundley said, adding that they believe Davison’s claims are now moot.

Chairwoman Randall has unsuccessfully tried to dismiss the lawsuit. According to court documents, she denied the county’s policy applied to her “Chair Phyllis J Randall,” Facebook page. The page in question however, links to her official government profile and states she is a government official.

Her defense argued the chairwoman maintains that Facebook page “in her personal capacity” and that Davison’s claim it is her “official” government page is “conclusory.”

Randall and Plowman both declined to comment for this story.

As of now, all three Civil Rights lawsuits are pending in federal court. A May 16 trial date has been set for Davison’s suit against the Board of Supervisors and Randall.

Activism

In the past two years, Davison has made a name for himself around the county for his activism and criticism of the policies of the School Board and other county departments he sees as engaging in unethical behavior.

Last year, a Richmond Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of Davison for his request for the Virginia Department of Education to release test score data showing student growth.

He has continued to speak out about issues around the county on a Virginia SGP Facebook page he maintains.

Although he admits he can’t fix all of the county's problems, he at least wants to fight against what he calls corrupt practices in Loudoun.

“It’s my belief that you can’t fix every situation, but when you’re knowledgeable and you’re in a position to challenge that … so that the government can be a little less corrupt, you have to try.”


Correction: A previous version of the article stated Commonwealth's Attorney James Plowman's lawyer was Michael Allen Bragg. Bragg is Brian Davison's lawyer. This article has been updated to reflect Plowman's lawyer is James W. Hundley.

Comments


Although I think Brian is a bit of a racist and xenophobe, if he is nothing else, he is entertaining and he definitely don’t back down.  It will be interesting to see how all this comes, these are very interesting constitutional issues.  Politicians like to use social media to push their agendas and tout their “so-called” successes, but, on the other hand they should have to hear their critics.  Like our Congresswoman, she spends more time hiding than explaining herself to her constituents.  So fight on Brian, but, stop picking on the little people so much because they don’t look like you; there are enough windmills out there for you to fight.


John M, agreed.  I resisted utilizing Facebook for a long time but it appears more folks get local news via Facebook than other channels.  Note that LTM mostly utilizes chat boards on its web site.  I am making the same argument to the court.  If LCSB or the BOS established similar chat boards to solicit feedback from the public on their websites, they still couldn’t legally censor comments based on the views of the citizens.  However, they could gain greater control over the comments (ensuring nobody is unfairly blocked) and citizens could participate without needing to succumb to Facebook.  LCSB and the BOS are unwilling to change.

When I decided to advocate for SGPs and more transparency in Jan-2015, the teacher union activists targeted me as enemy number one.  I don’t think it’s realistic or even helpful for me to run for the school board.  I do think the public should care about local elections because they matter.  The public cannot allow frivolous campaigns like those in 2015 composed of mere platitudes or even outright falsehoods (many on THIS board ran on “transparency”) to be successful any longer.  Hornberger ran on a platform of “improving math instruction” even though he voted to lay off nearly all of LCPS’  math specialists while retaining all of the reading specialists including his own spouse.  Imagine that! 

Transparency must mean something.  Candidates should be required to cite specific policies and solutions.  They must demonstrate a commitment to open, 2-way communication including policy discussions.  We need quality candidates (not necessarily with an educational policy background) who understand good governance and will communicate with the public.  We know they are out there.  I know of one candidate planning a run against Hornberger.

But do not be fooled into thinking the mess of LCPS is caused by just one unethical ex-chairman.  Hornberger had the help of Debbie Rose, Jill Turgeon, Bill Fox and others from the last board in trespassing me for speaking out.  Their whole strategy is to silence all criticism.  And all except one on this new board (Marshall) were unwilling to overturn that ban.  How is it possible that I was a “threat” to parents, teachers and students in 2016 but this year I am visiting the school every week?  School board members just came to realize some won’t cowtow to their corrupt demands.  Nearly all of the current board should be voted off and we start clean.  There must be accountability and we have seen this board is not capable of running our schools.

While you have some of the most unethical people imaginable in LCPS (see Byard), you also have some competent leaders.  The Dept of Instruction is now well run and we should see significant improvements going forward.  If we could just get some candidates who were not more interested in voting for raises for their spouses (Hornberger, Turgeon, Morse) than in improving safety and instruction, we really could have an excellent system.  Who will stand up and run in 2019?


Brian, I don’t really know if you are right or wrong here but you have your convictions and you are pursuing them hard, I guess I admire that.
I do disagree with comments from people who think Facebook is the only way the county government communicates with people. The one person who was saying they didn’t want to have to pay with their privacy and get a FB account just to know what is going on is wrong- FB is just one of the tools people use to get information and since so many people have accounts, it’s a good idea. Whether or not the county has the right to delete comments is for the judge to decide.
I do very much agree with Brian on one thing: Hornberger is not to be trusted. I ran into him when he was with the Ashburn Farm HOA and he lied and manipulated people for his own interests. I was saddened when I heard he was running for the school board and disgusted when he won. If Brian gets anything out of this, I hope it is knocking Hornberger off his perch.
Brian, have you ever run for a seat on the school board?


Shame on you PBf1- As one of the “Feckless Foursome”- you once again attack Sheriff Chapman with yet another low, cheap-shot without any substance or relevance to the article! How totally desperate, how feckless of you to try and deflect the deplorable actions of the commonwealth attorney Plowman with such an incredible reach to smear the sheriff. Who’s the real moron!!


Folks should consider several disturbing revelations about Loudoun officials beyond the obvious censorship:

1. At the final pretrail conference, I spoke to the Loudoun county attorney in the hall afterwards.  He asked “Why are we here?”.  I responded simply because Loudoun officials wouldn’t admit it’s unconstitutional to block critical speech on their Supervisor pages.  He shook his head in a very patronizing way, informed me that I would lose, and he would seek to force me to pay the court costs (loser pays in federal court).  When I asked him to wager a personal bet on the outcome for charity, he decline.  You see, Loudoun officials are willing to spend ANY amount of your money on cases they will surely lose simply to avoid accountability.  If they have to pay $50K or $100K just to avoid notoriety, that’s a small price for them.  If they acknowledged they violated the Constitution, case is over.  Think about that when you vote next time.

2. Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney Plowman is responsible for observing constitutional protections when prosecuting defendants.  Many defendants have little means to defend themselves and even less knowledge of their rights.  Plowman refused to even discuss his censorship with me, despite multiple appeals via emails and an in-person visit to his office, until I hired a lawyer.  It took 60 days after I actually filed the lawsuit for him to even unblock me on Facebook.  If Plowman is willing to knowingly thumb his nose at the 1st Amendment rights of a citizen capable of defending himself, what is Plowman doing to all those accused with little means facing jail time?

3. During discovery, the BOS attorney refused to allow the Supervisors to answer questions on the Loudoun County social media policy.  I had asked whether Letourneau, Buona, Umstattd, Meyer, etc. believed they could block citizens from commenting on their “Supervisor xyz” Facebook pages if they didn’t like their speech.  The shocking part is what their lawyer claimed in court.  I have filed 3 civil rights lawsuits regarding Facebook censorship against Plowman, the LCSB, and the BOS between Feb 2016 and July 2016.  Months later in November 2016, Loudoun changed its social media policy such that it no longer allows a permanent ban (that violated 1st Amd period).  Yet Chair Randall claims she had NO PART of that change and hadn’t even discussed it.  There is a pending federal lawsuit against her but the Loudoun staff apparently changed these policies “coincidentally” without BOS input/approval!!!  Obviously this is a complete lie for “plausible deniability” when accountability arises at the trial.  There is literally no limit to the lies these gutless politicians will relay to the court.

Folks, these are your Loudoun politicians.  They:

  - censor criticism against them

  - ignore Constitutional rights they have sworn to uphold

  - spend unlimited amounts of your tax dollars in a futile effort to protect their reputations

  - refuse to even acknowledge their own policies and lie when questioned about their actions in federal court

Don’t you think Loudoun, at some point, deserves better?  I am rather fond of a phrase Dick Black coined ... “ethical filth”.  I think it applies to many of them.


I’m on your side.  I just know that mike chapman is a moron and hides stuff from the public to make himself look good


when I was a kid Facebook was called “imaginary friends”


Chameleon, agree on button. Nobody forced the LCSB, BOS or LCAO to set up Facebook pages. They could create a discussion thread system like these newspapers. But they must follow the law. As far as opinion vs fact, we heard a lot of amateur attorneys celebrate some faulty Loudoun court decisions. Now that these cases are in federal court, everyone understands who was correct (me) and who was corrupt (Loudoun officials).

PBF1, you are correct that I was unconstitutional trespassed by LCSB. Chapman never paid overtime, LCPS had to contract for security because it was frivolous. The federal judge has been working 3 months on that opinion (LCPS violated chick rights). If you are confident in your position, why don’t we wager on the outcome? Or are you another aggressively ignorant, corruption-loving minion for Loudoun officials? By the way, I visit my kids’ school every week now. Since the previous principal was demoted to a 150 student school, there are no problems and no security whatsoever.

So Callme, when was the last time you saw me be able to participate in the discussion of school policies on school board member pages (Rose, Turgeon, Hornberger, Morse, Maloney). If you support my efforts to end such restrictions, why don’t you say so on THEIR pages? Rather hypocritical to tacitly support corrupt LCSB members holding discussions only on their FB pages while restructuring critics on there, eh?


The solution would be an “Ignore this commenter” button (similar to what the Washington Post offers).  Then when an obnoxious, overly verbose, know-it-all spews out reams of opinion, you would be spared.


Is this the guy that was no trespassed from his child’s school?is this the same guy that mike chapman pays overtime to deputies to sit outside the school all day and make sure he doesn’t show up and cause problems? Mike chapman is it?


Really, Golden?  You think that Brian does not get his chan d to be heard?  Just look at his massive post here and tell me that he does get more than his fair share of broadcast time

Also notice that he is enable to engage with any facts and misrepresent anything anyone else says.  For instance, I support his fight against FB restriction yet he attacks me and erroneously tries to connect me to the schools.  If he would only accept constructive criticism and engage civilly, he might one day be respected for his fights against the SB and BOS.


I was actually in federal court again this morning adding 2 more counts against Phyllis Randall (violation of the Virginia Constitution) so I haven’t been able to post till now.

For those who offered support, I thank you.  For those that said I am grandstanding, I asked the reporters if they could write the story without my name.  They declined.  I use the Virginia SGP screen name to draw attention to what I believe to be the most important issue: the quality of our schools.  Very few would voluntarily have liberal activists publicly accusing you of being “mentally unstable” and falsely claiming you use such suits to gain “access” to your kids.  Yes, many have and continue to make such libelous accusations.  They have failed to deter me to enforce the Constitution in Loudoun.

Let me address the other comments:

1. CousinSam, if the comments were turned off, then we wouldn’t be in court.  But public officials like you to believe you have input.  We see from the school board that they rarely provide transparent information or ever internalize public input.  Randall, Plowman and others wanted you to think they cared about your opinion.  When they were criticized, they blocked that criticism on government resources.  That has been unconstitutional for 230 years.  Yet, they still refuse to back down in those arguments.  Even this morning, their lawyer suggested they could do delete comments and/or block citizens in the future.

2. DD, thanks.  Note that I believe newspapers should allow more comments through, but they are not public bodies.  The Loudoun Tribune was so offended by my critique of their reporting, they have completely blocked me on their Facebook page.  Just shows how confident the Loudoun Tribune is in the quality of their reporting.  Government bodies do not have such discretion.

3. Levrier, you are spot on.  In fact, I filed a criminal complaint against Plowman for the willful destruction of public records (deleting Facebook comments).  LCSB’s Joy Maloney has violated the same law.  It’s black/white in the Virginia code and would ban them for life from office.  The magistrate judge denied that sufficient facts existed even though Plowman admitted doing so in federal court pleadings stating he could not recover the comments.  Facebook’s lawyer has confirmed they cannot recover my comments deleted from the Loudoun County Gov’t page yet some magistrate wants to protect the good ol’ boy (corrupt) politicians in Loudoun.  This entire system (except for the Loudoun County Sheriff) is rigged.  I forwarded the criminal complaint against Plowman to the VSP who in turn requested information from AG Herring’s office.  The AG is now sitting on it and will not respond so I FOIA’d them (along with some other code sections).  Their emails will likely verify they are trying to bury the complaint against Plowman.  I will soon seek those emails in court to prove just how corrupt this system is.

4. Let the record show that Callme is teaching our kids.  These LCPS teachers don’t understand our Constitution or our rights.  Many celebrated when a biased judge in Loudoun ruled against me.  I am undefeated outside Loudoun courts including 3 cases in federal court. Now tell me, if the Loudoun judge always rules against you but the Ivy League federal judge always rules in your favor, what might be the cause?

There are many officials in Loudoun worried that their questionable behavior may come to light.  My first public interaction on these issues dealt with the public release of test score data - SGPs.  The teacher union activists and LCPS teachers who loved having a guaranteed “great” evaluation attacked me personally and mercilessly.  I understand why the general public might question a new actor’s actions.  But as you have seen over the last two years, I take these actions to improve transparency and our schools.  Nothing more, nothing less.  I will soon disengage completely but these cases will likely persist for years.

After speaking out, LCPS and its board then retaliated against me.  I agreed with the author (Sydney) that many of the counts in my federal case against the school board were not relevant to this story and thus not included.  But the federal case against LCSB is serious.  The federal judge has been working for 3 months on writing an opinion.  If anybody thinks it takes 3 months to dismiss a lawsuit, then you might want to ask lawyers how that typically works.  I am seeking monetary damages for Hornberger, Rose, Turgeon, Fox and others intentionally banning me from my kids’ school for pointing out their violations of federal and state law.  That’s serious business.  And if/when I prevail, I will use the majority of any damages to fund others’ lawsuits against Loudoun officials.  There is no shortage of corrupt actions in Loudoun, only a shortage of capable folks and funding to back such lawsuits.


Why does the county use Facebook?  I don’t have an account and don’t need one.

Loudoun.gov seems the logical place to post all County information.


How would you know?  If some of his messages are being blocked you would have no idea.  Isn’t that the point of blocking someone so others do not have the ability to see the message?

Fri, Mar 24 at 11:56 AM by Dante_Callme | Report this comment

Brain had never had his voice silenced.


Good work BD…looks like some bureaucrats don’t like having the spotlight turned on them or like being held accountable for their public service to the people who foot the bill…after what we just learned with damron, brewer, Williams, school board, Maloney arrest, on and on…it should give any parent concern on how their very well funded school system is being run—looks like a keystone cop operation to me with Williams as Barney Fife….


Well congrats Brian.  Look, I haven’t always seen eye to eye with you but I recognize that the issue of public figures attempting to stage manage their social media pages is legitimate.  If you use public funds, equipment or facilities to run a social media page then you can’t be censoring comments for anything but obscene language—this is a totally legitimate point.

My gripe with you for years has been the way you hijack totally unrelated discussions about issues that have no real link to your causes and, when you think about it, deprive US of the chance of continuing on with discussion important to the rest of the community.  You would take an article about a “school” of fish under a diving “board” and turn in into a discussion of Eric Hornberger.  That said, I’ve sensed you toned that down a bit lately so thanks, and, yes, keep up the pressure on those who seek all the benefits of public life but don’t seek to follow all the rules.


Brain had never had his voice silenced.  He has always posted and commented and ranted.  Take a look at the overwhelming number of comments he makes on all the sites How can he claim he has not been able to voice his opiion.  Except - he never uses any data, logic, or reality in his postings so this law suite is right in line with his history.

Funny thing is that I do think there should be decisions about FB use by public organizations.  I just think that Brian is not spokesperson for reality.


This is truly great work, Brian. 

These are public figures or entities and social media is the best pipeline that people have to them.  Censorship of comments that aren’t obscene leads one to conclude that said comments are striking a nerve.  I look forward to following this story and to see what direction things go in May. 

Thanks, Brian, for all that you’re doing! 


WOW LTM- you are actually giving this guy the spotlight that he so eagerly desires and calling him an activist?  Scary!  Let’s be clear, he is not an activist.  An activist is a “person who campaigns to bring about political or social change”...Mr. Davison is certainly not that.  He is an online bully who constantly stirs the pot, makes outlandish accusations and develops conspiracy theories about a large number of local politicians, board members, school personnel… He has been begging you all for years to give him a headline and you finally caved.  For all those readers who don’t know his troll name, it is Virginia SGP.


Additional problems with Facebook are:

1) The county requires you to have a FB account to access the site.  Some FB sites will allow you to access the pages without logging in, but then you have a banner blocking at least 1/3 of the page telling you to log it. 

I find it offensive that government puts public information behind the paywall (with Facebook, you pay with your lost privacy) of a third party private company, and I’m expected to do business with this 3rd party company who has a spotty privacy record at best, just to get information from my government officials.

2) The banner across the page, I’m guessing, does not come close to meet ADA requirements for government websites.  Just wait until someone notifies the Justice Dept.

3) Since the county is conducting government business on Facebook, theses accounts, and all of the activities of these accounts, is subject to the Virginia FOIA.


“The debate is for the community sites like this one and others.”

Let’s see if this comment gets through….the problem with that statement is that this forum censors comments too.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been censored and I bet Brian has been censored even more often.


Good for Brian.  I’m purely speculating, but my guess is he is getting banned because of differing opinions and, usually, the facts to back it up.  He is challenging people and they don’t like it.

If you want to use social medial to project your official persona, then it is a public space.  You have to take what you like with what you don’t like just like listening to people speak for 2 minutes at input sessions.


There is no need for comments to even be turned on for most of these social media pages. Just use the pages for announcements and public notices.  Social media for government with its anonymity invites trolls and unhealthy debate where it should just serve the purpose of dispensing information.  The debate is for the community sites like this one and others.

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