(AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
At issue is a Twitter account opened by former board president Lewis Reed. The current president, Megan Green, claims Reed opened the account without any city resources and blocked Sarah Felts because she used a term that Reed deemed inappropriate.
“The city’s position is very specific that Lewis Reed did not have the authority to create a city policy as it relates to social media,” city attorney Brandon Laird argued during the 20-minute hearing.
Felts filed a lawsuit in 2020 in the Eastern District of Missouri, claiming the block violated her First Amendment rights because the account was the official account of the office of the president of the Board of Aldermen.
Felts was awarded $1 in damages following a bench trial.
Green claims the decision should be reversed because Reed was not the final decisionmaker for the city of St. Louis, therefore his unilateral decision to block Felts was not a policy decision by the city.
Emma Kenny-Pessia, a law student under the supervision of Lisa S. Hoppenjans of the Washington University School of Law, First Amendment Clinic, represented Felts. She argued the lower court was correct because Reed was a final policymaker for the city.
“The city has stipulated that Reed was the ultimate person who had authority over his office, that he didn’t answer to anyone within the structure of the St. Louis government, that all of the staff and his office ultimately reported to him,” Kenny-Pessia said.
Laird argued that Reed’s power didn’t make him a policymaker.
“Nobody can tell the president of the Board of Aldermen what he’s going to say or not going to say, he’s the president of the Board of Aldermen,” Laird said. “His staffers aren’t going to tell him what to say. None of the other legislators have any authority to tell him what to say. But that’s different from having the ability to create a policy on behalf of the city of St. Louis.”
Laird was questioned whether Reed was free to ignore the city’s social media policy.
“There is a social media policy for the city of St. Louis,” Laird said. “The fact that the president of the Board of Aldermen can disregard that or does disregard that, doesn’t make his decisions policy for the city of St. Louis. If that’s the case, then certainly there’s nobody who can tell any other elected aldermen what communications come in or out of their office. And if they’re not blocking somebody, then they’re also creating a city policy of not blocking somebody improperly on social media as well. So, then you would simply have conflicting policies.”
Kenny-Pessia countered that Reed took a deliberate course of action when other alternatives were available.
“He could have simply ignored the tweet, he could have made an individual account and responded to Miss Felts’ tweet, he could have responded to Miss Felts’ tweet, but he made the deliberate choice to block her here, and that’s what gave rise to a constitutional violation,” Kenny-Pessia said.
Judges James B. Loken, a George H. W. Bush appointee, Roger L. Wollman, a Ronald Reagan appointee, and Duane Benton, a George W. Bush appointee, heard the arguments and took the case under advisement.
Green was sworn in as the board’s president in November 2022, after Reed resigned after pleading guilty in an unrelated bribery scandal. He is currently serving three years and nine months in a federal prison.