Overview:

PSC Commissioner Tim Echols blocked his rival on Twitter and Facebook. She's suing.

Patty Durand relishes a good debate. The consumer energy advocate expected to have plenty of them after she announced her candidacy for a seat on the Georgia Public Service Commission in 2021, running against Tim Echols. But in July, Echols cut her off from what the Supreme Court has dubbed “the modern public square” by blocking her from his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

She’s now suing him for violating her First Amendment rights.

A complaint filed Tuesday in federal district court in Atlanta details how Echols blocked her from his Twitter feed and his Facebook page in July after she tweeted a criticism of Echols’ failed attempt to pass any of about a dozen changes to Georgia Power’s long-term plan.

Durand saw Echols’ effort as a move to placate voters in an election year rather than a genuine attempt to protect ratepayers.

“I said it was lame and if Echols wanted to pass a motion he would have lobbied his colleagues in advance,” she said in a phone interview.

Censoring Durand and others (Atlanta-area resident Robert Searfoss is also mentioned in the suit as being blocked by Echols) based on their criticism of Echols’ policy positions violates the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment, the suit alleges.

Echols and Durand were opponents in the tumultuous race for District 2 Public Service Commissioner previously scheduled for the November general election. Text messages revealed that Echols appeared to be involved in an attempt to draw Durand out of her district, but she prevailed in court to remain a candidate. Then in August, a voting rights case postponed that election along with the race for District 3. The Georgia General Assembly is expected to address the voting rights issue in the upcoming session and reschedule the races. Both Echols and Durand say they will again run for a seat on the panel, which sets rates for electric, natural gas and telecommunications services.

The Current emailed Echols asking why he blocked Durand on Twitter.

“I typically block anyone using profanity or posting explicit messages in their feed,” Echols wrote.

Echols did not provide examples of Durand using profanity of explicit messages. Instead he suggested The Current search for them.

“I am meeting with attorneys today to discuss, but I’ll leave it to you to check Patty’s feed for profanity,” he wrote. “Make sure to click the tab ‘Tweets and Replies’ to see everything.”

A search of Durand’s more than 4,500 tweets revealed no profanity directed at Echols. She used the word “damn” in two tweets, and “shit” in two tweets, the last time in May as a synonym for “stuff”:

A search of Echols’ feed revealed that he responded cordially to at least two tweets posted by other accounts using the same expletives.

He suggested that blocking Durand doesn’t violate her First Amendment rights.

“Blocking does not actually restrict anyone’s ability to voice their opinion though — only their ability to hear mine,” Echols wrote.

Courts have disagreed in similar cases when a government official uses a social media account for government business. In 2018, a federal judge ruled that the President Donald Trump’s practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account violated the First Amendment.

“We have filed briefs in cases involving elected officials blocking people, where we argue that members of the public, regardless of their viewpoint, have a First Amendment right to receive and comment on these officials’ social media posts,” Karen Gullo, spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in an email. “In other words, the public has a right to access official communications on social media. Even government officials’ nominally private accounts can in fact be used for official purposes—in which case it would violate the First Amendment for these accounts to block followers based on their viewpoints.”

Echols tweets on average almost 10 times a day. He joined Twitter in 2008 and has since posted more than 47,000 times. Before blocking Durand, he boasted to her via Twitter that he operates in a way constituents can easily track — using Twitter.

“I don’t know of an official in GA more transparent than me,” he tweeted. “My Twitter feed is the diary that lets you see everything I have done & said.”

Because that diary is now slammed shut on Durand, she can no longer post replies on Echols’ feed, search Echols’ tweets, send him Direct Messages on Twitter, or view his followers, likes, or lists on the platform.

Unlike Durand, about 13,300 Twitter users who “follow” Echols on Twitter receive updates or notifications whenever he creates a new post, or retweets his own or another account’s tweets.

Echols has also blocked Durand on his Facebook page where he has nearly 5,000 followers.

Durand is asking the court to force Echols to stop the practice of blocking based on viewpoint and to unblock her on both Twitter and Facebook.