Charles Blackwell combines the skills of a top-notch investigative reporter with those of a crusading attorney, but he’s neither. The 28-year-old Farmington Hills resident, in fact, underwrites mortgages for a living. But it’s what he does when not on the job that makes him so worthy of admiration, and support.
Mr. Blackwell is on a mission to hold public officials accountable. He’s also determined to protect his First Amendment free speech rights. In that regard, he has the ACLU of Michigan as an ally.
An intensely curious person, Mr. Blackwell is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get to the bottom of issues that capture his attention by filing Freedom of Information Act requests with various public bodies. By his estimation, he’s filed about 150 such requests over the past several years. When the recipients of those requests don’t provide the records he believes he’s entitled to, Mr. Blackwell takes them to court, serving as his own lawyer.
The vast majority of the time, says Mr. Blackwell, he wins those cases.
“I don’t have any formal legal training,” he says. “I have two associate degrees, one in business management and one in business information technology. But all my legal knowledge, I have learned on my own.”
Mr. Blackwell is back in court again. This time, however, the issue isn’t access to information. Instead, it is access to the city of Inkster’s various Facebook pages that he’s fighting for. Both the Inkster Police Department and the Wimberly-Mayor City of Inkster Facebook pages deleted his postings and blocked his access after he began using social media to draw attention to allegations of corruption on the part of the city’s former recreation director and asking questions of the mayor about the issue.
He sued in federal court, and, again representing himself, negotiated a preliminary injunction in April that allows him to post on the city's social media pages while the lawsuit is pending. As the case moves forward, however, he no longer will be battling alone. Earlier this month, the ACLU of Michigan joined in the suit on his behalf.
Mr. Blackwell appreciates the help.
“I would never think I’m better at this than someone who went to law school and does this work on a daily basis,” he says. “I’m happy to have the ACLU at my side as this case goes forward.”
We joined the case because the stakes are so high. This is about much more than just Mr. Blackwell and his dispute with Inkster officials.
“This case is extremely important because it goes to the heart of a person’s First Amendment right to engage with the government,” explains Bonsitu Kitaba-Gaviglio, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Michigan. “We think it is clear that the censorship of Mr. Blackwell’s political speech is unconstitutional.”
While the law regarding public officials’ treatment of speech in public forums is firmly rooted in the Constitution, courts have increasingly recognized platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as the electronic equivalent of the traditional town square.
Notably, in a lawsuit filed against Donald Trump after the then-president blocked critics from his personal Twitter account, which Mr. Trump frequently used to convey information related to his role as a government official, both a federal district court judge and a three-member panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit determined that Mr. Trump was violating the critics’ First Amendment rights.
By the time the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Trump was no longer in office, leading the high court to order the case dismissed as moot. But important legal ground had been laid.
“When officials and agencies use interactive social media … they create spaces that play important functions in our democracy,” observed attorneys for the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of seven people blocked from Mr. Trump’s Twitter account. “Their [public officials’] accounts can be sources of official information, channels through which citizens can petition their representatives for ‘redress of grievances’ (as the First Amendment puts it) and forums in which citizens can exchange information and ideas. The same reasoning that led the appeals court to hold that Mr. Trump couldn’t constitutionally block critics from his Twitter account makes clear that other government actors who engage in similar conduct do so at their peril.”
Ms. Kitaba-Gaviglio sees Mr. Blackwell’s case as an opportunity to cement in place the rules public officials should be following when using electronic public forums.
“These officials need guidance regarding what they can and cannot do,” Ms. Kitaba-Gaviglio says. “Mr. Blackwell’s case provides a foundation to do just that.”
For Mr. Blackwell, the bottom line is clear:
“No matter how much technology evolves, the core constitutional principles of freedom of speech should always apply.”