Georgia PSC commissioner sued over social media blocks

A candidate who sought to unseat Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) Vice Chairman Tim Echols has filed a federal lawsuit alleging Echols blocked her and others from his social media accounts over criticism of his performance.

Patty Durand, who was the Democratic nominee this year for the PSC District 2 seat, alleges Echols blocked her from social media accounts that identify him as a commissioner and where he regularly communicates official business to thousands of followers, according to a suit filed last week in U.S. District Court.

Durand alleges that by blocking her, Echols denied her and others the ability to view or comment on matters of public interest, a violation of her right to free speech under the First Amendment.

The PSC regulates utilities, including Georgia Power, and makes decisions that affect millions of Georgia residents and businesses. The election, originally scheduled for Nov. 8, is on hold following a court ruling that the PSC’s method of electing representatives violates Black voters’ rights. The state has appealed that ruling and a hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 15. A new election date has not been set.

Durand, who has said she intends to challenge Echols again, details in her complaint a number of online interactions in which she questioned Echols’ relationships with Georgia Power and his support for Plant Vogtle, among other criticisms. The Vogtle nuclear power project is years behind schedule and billions over budget.

The suit says Echols blocked Durand sometime after July 21. Durand contends none of her comments were threatening, obscene or defamatory. The complaint also claims other critics have been blocked.

A spokesman for Echols said the commissioner is still exploring legal options for representation and is consulting with the state attorney general.

Such lawsuits have become increasingly common over the years, with judges generally ruling against public officials who block, said Gerry Weber, an attorney representing Durand. Weber said he has brought six similar cases against public officials and won five, with the sixth pending.

“Every case has been decided by a different judge at this point,” Weber said. “They all say that even in a non-public forum, viewpoint discrimination is prohibited. ... It’s viewpoint discrimination to block anybody who’s a critic.”

Among the cases Weber successfully argued was one against then-Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren in 2020 over the sheriff and staff blocking critics on Facebook. That lawsuit ended up costing taxpayers $30,000.

Durand said she began using social media in part to raise awareness about what regulators were doing because she felt the PSC lacked transparency.

“A lot of what Tim Echols posts is either half-truth or untruth, so that’s where I try to weigh in,” Durand said. “When he blocks me, then that shuts my ability to reach the public down, at least the public that he is speaking to.”

This is not the first time a matter involving Durand and Echols has ended up in court.

Earlier this year, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger tried to have Durand disqualified from running against Echols, arguing she had not lived within District 2 for long enough after lawmakers redrew the PSC maps. But a judge kept Durand on the ballot and she won the Democratic nomination.

This summer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an investigation based on text and email messages between Echols, PSC Chairman Tricia Pridemore and others that revealed efforts to draw Durand out of Echols’ district as lawmakers drew new political maps.

More recently, the PSC has come under scrutiny over transparency, including changing its rules to limit public access to meetings prior to the Georgia Power rate hearings, where the company is arguing to collect an additional $2.9 billion from customers.