An Arkansas state senator said Friday that he should be allowed to block social media users, pointing to what he called “vile” and “profane” responses to a recent boycott he called on a Little Rock brewpub this week.
Sen. Jason Rapert is embroiled in a legal battle with an atheist group and four Arkansans who are alleging the Conway Republican blocked atheists from his Twitter and Facebook pages and violated their First Amendment rights.
Rapert wrote in a Facebook post Friday that he has a right to bar people who use “profanity and intimidation” on social media.
Rapert cited responses he’s gotten after calling for the boycott of Little Rock brewpub Vino’s. A promoter created a concert poster that depicted Rapert biting a baby, drawing a sharp response from the three-term senator.
“Perhaps Federal Judge Kristine Baker will read this and see why we must have the right to ban people from using profanity and intimidation on social media pages,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
The lawsuit underscores a broader debate on whether public officials are legally able to block critics and others from viewing or interacting with their social media pages.
Free-speech advocates behind similar legal challenges across the country at nearly every level of government have argued that blocking followers and commenters amounts to locking them out of a public meeting.
Baker is expected to rule soon on whether to temporarily restore American Atheists Inc.’s access to Rapert’s accounts after taking the issue under advisement late last month.
Rapert has argued that his social media presence is not affiliated with his job as a lawmaker, making commenters subject to his rules on what people can post.
Rapert’s post on Friday did not point to any specific comments on his initial post, which had garnered over 5,000 responses by Friday.
He called for Vino's to be boycotted when a promoter manipulated a photo of the senator so that it appeared to show him biting a baby to promote a May 24 concert featuring New Orleans sludge metal band EyeHateGod.
Rapert told the Democrat-Gazette on Wednesday the poster used his photo without permission and that “it’s offensive to a lot of people.”
He also called on the bar to cancel the show and issue an apology.
EyeHateGod singer Mike IX Williams said in an interview he has no plans to cancel the band's appearance. He said the images used in the poster are protected under the Constitution.
“We’re not going to stand idly while he does these things,” Williams said. “You can’t stop a band from playing or using a picture as parody."
Williams said he sees the benefits of the added attention in setting up a debate on freedom of expression and speech.
The band has performed in Little Rock a handful of times in the recent past, as well as a show in Conway in the ‘90s, he said.
In nearly three decades of performing under the name EyeHateGod, Williams said the band hasn't drawn fire from a lawmaker.
Vino’s event coordinator Christopher Terry said he changed the promotion poster, which appears now as a yellow smiley face.
He said he didn’t mean to harm the reputation of the more than 30-year-old establishment. Terry noted that the added attention to the show saw a boost in ticket sales.