BERRYVILLE — The First Amendment case against Berryville Mayor Patricia Dickinson, who deleted criticism and briefly banned a man from her Facebook page, was dismissed in Clarke County General District Court on Thursday.
Judge Amy B. Tisinger told complainant Brian McClemens that general district courts are the wrong jurisdictions for First Amendment cases. “We are a court of limited jurisdiction,” Tisinger said, adding that McClemens could appeal her ruling.
The dispute began on June 5 after Dickinson suggested on her Facebook page that people visit the grand opening of a McDonald’s restaurant that opened in Berryville the next day. McDonald’s is one of just two chain restaurants in the town.
McClemens — whose wife, Heidi Grubb-McClemens, owns the Berryville Grille — posted on Dickinson’s page that the mayor was “seriously delirious.” He wrote that she was showing favoritism to a corporate business at the expense of locally owned restaurants.
Dickinson hid the two posts and banned McClemens saying he was using her page to “disparage a competitor.” After someone posted a link to a federal appeals court ruling from January that stated that public officials who use social media for government business can’t block people from commenting, Dickinson unblocked McClemens and his comments on June 6.
A month later, a federal appeals court ruling backed up the idea that social media used by public officials for government business are public forums. It said that President Trump can’t block critics on his Twitter account.
Online blocking of critics by politicians and government agencies is common. In December, the investigative news website Pro Publica reported that at least nine governors — five Republicans and four Democrats — and five federal agencies were blocking at least 1,298 accounts.
McClemens, who had sought $1 in his small claims filing, said after the court hearing that he plans to take his challenge to the federal level by filing a complaint in the US. District Court in Harrisonburg. Despite Dickinson reinstating him within 24 hours on her Facebook page, McClemens insisted his lawsuit isn’t frivolous.
“If we don’t make a stand for something like the mayor of Berryville violating your First Amendment rights, how are we supposed to change things beyond that?” he said. “To me, it’s about the principle and the rule of law.”
He said he also plans to begin a petition drive next week to gather at least 100 signatures to put a recall of Dickinson on the November ballot. That’s about 10 percent of the registered voters who cast ballots in the 2016 mayoral election when Dickinson was elected to her first term in office. In addition to contending that Dickinson was misusing her office by promoting McDonald’s, McClemens said the recall is because Dickinson mistreats town employees and Town Manager Keith Dalton.
Dickinson didn’t appear in court. She was represented by attorney Robert T. Mitchell, who said he was representing Dickinson as a private citizen, not in her role as mayor.
Dickinson said by phone that she believed Tysinger’s dismissal was “appropriate,” but declined further comment on the case. Dickinson said a recall drive would not distract her from her mayoral duties.
“It’s business as usual,” she said. “I will make no changes.”