How much freedom do you have when you’re interacting with a government agency on social media?
One S.C. man is trying to find out, after he criticized the S.C. Department of Transportation on its Facebook page and made a video of himself trying to fill a pothole with a pizza.
Summerville attorney Tom Fernandez is suing the state agency in federal court after the state agency banned him from its Facebook page. He argues the ban is a government suppression of his free speech rights.
“When the government creates a digital space and solicits feedback, it’s like a city or county council meeting, or a city park,“ Fernandez told The State. “It’s official discrimination whether it’s a park, a council chamber or a government-run Facebook page.”
Fernandez made the video after seeing a Domino’s ad that promised to pave roads with potholes reported to it by their delivery customers. Fernandez thought it was such a good idea that he decided to try to fill a hole on a S.C. highway himself — with a couple pepperoni pizza.
“Berkeley County roads and bridges just went by, slowed down looking to see what I was doing,” Fernandez says in the video, posted Aug. 14, where he pounds the pizzas into the pavement on Witherbee Road in Berkeley County.
When the state Transportation Department later put out its own video outlining how the public can request help filling a pothole, Fernandez responded on the agency’s Facebook page on Aug. 29. He said the agency’s “video was not effective and that they needed to post better videos outlining how they actually fix potholes,” according to a Sept. 27 court filing.
The suit then says Fernandez posted a “pizza emoticon.”
Fernandez, subsequently, was blocked from interacting with the Transportation Department’s Facebook page. The suit notes, “The precise content of Tom’s comment ... is unknown because the SCDOT deleted the comment.”
The attorney, who is representing himself on the suit, cites similar suits challenging public officials blocking critics on social media, including a federal court decision that a Virginia official could not remove a complainant from an official Facebook page.
Even President Donald Trump has been targeted for blocking people from following his Twitter account.
Fernandez said he isn’t asking for a large payout from the state roads agency in his suit, just the cost of his $400 filing fee. His main objective is to have the First Amendment rights of Facebook commenters recognized.
Transportation Department spokesman Pete Poore said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. Poore said the state agency had not yet been served with a copy of the lawsuit Thursday but Fernandez’s Facebook ban had been lifted. Not so, Fernandez said, adding he still was blocked from the page as of Friday.
2020 watch: More Democrats jumping into S.C. politics
The 2020 presidential election might feel like it’s still a long way away. But, for a number of potential Democratic presidential contenders, South Carolina’s early presidential primary feels much sooner.
On Friday, progressive U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., sent out a fundraising email on behalf of the S.C. Democratic Party, tying it to the fight over Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
“If Brett Kavanaugh gets confirmed to the Supreme Court, the government could interfere with a woman’s right to make medical decisions with her doctor, and South Carolina will be on the front lines of the fight to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Warren’s email says.
Her emails also referred to a lengthy filibuster in the state Senate in May, when Democrats managed to block an effort to ban abortion from passing in the last days of the legislative session.
S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick dismissed Warren’s fundraising efforts, saying in a news release she was the “latest out-of-state radical Democrat who wants to be president that is raising money to fight against South Carolina’s conservative values.”
Warren isn’t alone.
On Nov. 3, three days before the midterm election, Eric Holder will headline an NAACP gala at the Gaillard Center in Charleston. The attorney general under President Barack Obama, Holder also has been mentioned as a potential presidential contender.
Even sooner, U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., will campaign Sunday at the Anderson Civic Center at an event for Mary Geren, the Democrat running for Congress in the 3rd District against U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens.