Hope Mills free speech case part of arguments presented to Supreme Court in new cases

Monique John Image
Wednesday, November 1, 2023
Free speech online case before SCOTUS grew from Hope Mills' settlement
A case in Hope Mills puts the town front and center at the nation's highest court.

HOPE MILLS, N.C. (WTVD) -- A case in Hope Mills puts the town front and center at the nation's highest court.

The case argues if you post on a government official's page and that official blocks it, then it's a violation of the First Amendment. A group of lawyers including two attorneys at Duke Law School wrote the legal argument.

"It's really problematic when those officials feel free to block people or delete comments if they disagree with those comments," said Sarah Ludington, the director of the First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law and one of the authors of the amicus brief presented to the Supreme Court.

Hope Mills is just one example cited in the case including others from Georgia, Arizona and Tennessee. The Hope Mills settlement from January referenced in the amicus brief states that Mayor Jackie Warner blocked Facebook comments from people who criticized the town for not insuring a dam that later cost taxpayers millions for repairs. She also wiped out commenters opposed to demolishing a town-owned parish hall.

"It's disappointing because people already don't trust local government," said Hope Mills Commissioner Joanna Scarola, "so for local government to censor First Amendment rights, it's a hard pill to swallow. If we can't go to our local elected, who are we supposed to turn to?"

Ludington explains government censorship on social media is a major issue for smaller municpalities like Hope Mills because people living there are more reliant on social media to learn what's happening in their community.

"We also believe that selectively deleting and blocking people can create a sort of echo chamber effect," Ludington said, "where, if you're only allowing positive comments on your social media page, it can make you feel like everybody approves of this official's business."

Ludington says the Supreme Court should issue a ruling in June.

Neighbors say they hope the ruling sets a better precedent for how politicians act online. Jessie Bellflowers, a mayoral candidate, says some of his immediate relatives were blocked on social media on Hope Mills' government pages amid the controversy over the town's parish hall.

"Not everyone's going to agree with every decision that you make. But you at least (have) got to listen to what people's opinions are both pro and con on both sides of whatever the argument is, or whether the decision is."