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Democratic lawmaker who endorsed Trump sued over Facebook blocks

Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, confers with a colleague as the General Assembly returned for the 16th legislative day on Feb. 20, 2020. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM
Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, confers with a colleague as the General Assembly returned for the 16th legislative day on Feb. 20, 2020. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

A new federal lawsuit accuses controversial Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones of blocking critics on Facebook.

Jones is the Democratic lawmaker who made waves last month by endorsing President Donald Trump's re-election campaign.

In the suit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, Cobb County resident Tomas Miko claims that Jones violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by deleting critical comments he posted on the legislator’s Facebook page. Miko is the lone plaintiff in the suit, but it also cites three other individuals who said Jones blocked them and prevented further comments or public debate by them on his page.

“The case law has made very clear that a Facebook page where a government official is taking about government business is a government page, for purposes of the First Amendment,” Miko’s attorney, Gerry Weber, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And that means you can’t block your critics from posting, you can’t delete particular comments of your critics. Public officials are supposed to hear from both sides.”

ExploreMORE: All about Vernon Jones

Jones, who represents parts of southeastern DeKalb and Rockdale counties, did not immediately return requests for comment on the lawsuit Wednesday.

He’s hardly the first public official to be accused of inappropriately silencing critics on social media.

Weber himself has represented clients in recent suits or complaints against Republican state Rep. Ginny ErhartCobb County Sheriff Neil Warren, the Walton County Sheriff's Office and a Douglas County commissioner. Last summer, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that President Trump's practice of blocking critics from his @RealDonaldTrump Twitter account violated the First Amendment.

The suit against Jones claims that he blocked Miko after an early March exchange about an immigration-related piece of legislation that Jones had co-sponsored. The complaint says three other people reported being blocked after posting on Jones' Facebook page about demeaning comments he reportedly made toward Stephe Koontz, a transgender member of the Doraville City Council.

The suit says Jones ultimately made his original Facebook page private altogether, then started another page on April 15 — the day after his controversial Trump endorsement. That endorsement triggered swift condemnation fellow Democrats, as well as a wave of national media attention.

About a week after making the endorsement, Jones said he would resign from the state legislature, whose current session is yet to be completed because of the coronavirus pandemic. But he walked that vow back just a day later, citing an "overwhelming amount of support" from his constituents.

Jones did, however, drop his re-election bid — a decision that avoided further proceedings in a legal challenge to his residency.

In March, a constituent filed a challenge with the state claiming that Jones actually lived in Atlanta and not in House District 91, and therefore should not have been able to qualify to seek re-election. The complaint was dismissed as moot when Jones pulled out of the race.