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Federal Judge: Atheist Free Speech Lawsuit Has A “Fair Chance of Prevailing,” Can Move Ahead

Little Rock, AR—An Arkansas federal judge ruled today that American Atheists’ lawsuit against Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert has a “fair chance of prevailing” and allowed it to move forward.

Judge Kristine G. Baker of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas denied Jason Rapert’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit against him. 

“Rapert has repeatedly called our lawsuit against him ‘frivolous.’ Today’s decision should put an end to that ridiculous claim,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, Litigation Counsel at American Atheists. “The Arkansans Rapert has blocked will get their day in court, and we have every confidence we’ll prevail.”

American Atheists filed the lawsuit on behalf of its members in Arkansas, including four individual plaintiffs, whom Rapert unconstitutionally blocked from his official Facebook and Twitter accounts after they criticized his positions on several issues. The complaint also alleges that Rapert blocked the plaintiffs due to their atheism.

In the same order in which she rejected Rapert’s motion to dismiss, Judge Baker also denied American Atheists’ motion for a preliminary injunction, which would have forced the Arkansas state senator to “un-block” the individual plaintiffs while the lawsuit moves forward. 

Judge Baker determined that American Atheists and the four individual plaintiffs had a “fair chance of prevailing” on their claim that Rapert violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Nonetheless, Judge Baker concluded that imposing a preliminary injunction would be inappropriate in part because the individual plaintiffs did not act swiftly enough to challenge the violation of their rights.

“Judge Baker’s decision underscores the importance of taking immediate action when government officials block you on social media,” said Blackwell. “Hopefully, Senator Rapert sees the writing on the wall and chooses to stop censoring people who disagree with him. But I’m not holding my breath.”

“Sen. Rapert has an uncanny way of crying persecution even as he tramples on atheists’ rights,” said Nick Fish, President of American Atheists. “He can’t claim to care about the concerns of his constituents while turning the public forums he set up to hear those concerns into his very own ‘safe space.’”

Judge Baker’s decision today ruled out the possibility of punitive damages against Rapert. Judge Baker concluded that, because the law on free speech in the realm of social media is developing and unsettled, Rapert is entitled to qualified immunity for claims of monetary damages.