The state of Arkansas is $16,000 poorer today after State Senator Jason Rapert agreed to a settlement in his legal battle to avoid online criticism from atheists. After the state pays the atheists’ court costs, Rapert will have to unblock certain atheist constituents on Twitter and provide “written documentation showing possible wrongdoing” if he wants to block them in the future.
Rapert is being treated like a child after a temper tantrum because that’s his level of maturity as an elected official.
If you need a refresher, this saga began in 2018, when American Atheists filed a lawsuit against Rapert, a lawmaker best known for erecting an unconstitutional Ten Commandments monument outside the State Capitol. They claimed Rapert had blocked four constituents on Facebook and Twitter because they were atheists and because they were critical of his policy positions. Whatever the reason, that would be illegal. Lawmakers are obligated to keep lines of communication open for their well-intentioned constituents, even ones who are critical of them.
It may seem silly to go to the courts over a social media kerfuffle, but the truth is if Rapert blocked residents from his official social media presence, they would be unable to see what he’s doing on their behalf. (In 2018, a federal judge ruled that Donald Trump also couldn’t block people on Twitter for those reasons.)
Rapert’s defense boiled down to the idea that he was blocking them on his personal accounts, not his official government ones, therefore he wasn’t doing anything illegal… but no one was buying it, including U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker. She said in 2019 that Rapert didn’t really distinguish between his personal and private accounts and the First Amendment claims of the atheists had merit. So the case continued.
Since that time, Rapert chose to give up his seat to make a bid for Lt. Governor of Arkansas… a race that he lost this past May with a paltry 15% of votes in the Republican primary. That means Rapert will be out of office come January of next year, when he’ll move on to running his pro-Christian Nationalism group “National Association of Christian Lawmakers” (NACL a.k.a. Salt of the Earth. You get it.)
But the case took a surprising twist last month when Judge Baker forced Rapert to turn over a giant trove of documents he’s been trying to hide from the court. They included details about all his social media accounts (including deactivated or deleted ones) since 2014; all the times he’s blocked people from interacting with those accounts; all the times he’s reported complaints to state officials; and all the times he’s mentioned words/phrases like “atheist,” “Project Blitz,” and “Christian nation” in an official capacity.
Rapert objected to all of this, repeatedly saying the requests were “overly broad” and “disproportionate to the needs of the case.” But the judge wasn’t having it:
Boilerplate objections are not sufficient answers to discovery requests; information about Rapert’s other accounts is within the purview of discoverable information in the instant action; and whether information is accessible to a third party does not absolve Rapert of his obligation to turn over the requested information.
Rapert had until August 5 to turn over the documents. A trial was set to begin on October 3.
But faced with a decision of going through discovery or settling the case with the atheists, Rapert chose the settlement.
Today, American Atheists is celebrating what amounts to a legal victory for them. While the $16,000 in legal fees will be paid for by the state of Arkansas, and not Rapert himself, the atheist plaintiffs will end up getting everything they wanted.
“This is a victory for freedom of speech and equality for atheists,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists. “Let Jason Rapert be an example to all the Christian nationalist lawmakers and would-be theocrats in our country. If you spread hate and then try to escape accountability, you will face the consequences.”
“Time and time again, Jason Rapert called our lawsuit ‘frivolous’ and claimed he would ‘never bow down,’” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “The only things that were ‘frivolous’ were Rapert’s legal arguments. He repeatedly lost to us in court and was going to lose this case. We’re glad he finally saw the writing on the wall and chose to change course, unblock our clients, and settle.”
If you’re wondering why Rapert doesn’t have to pay anything, he was granted qualified immunity in this case as a public official. He won’t be in power for much longer. But at least his petty inability to deal with criticism means one of his final acts in office will be settling a case that centered around his own fragile ego.
As of this writing, Rapert hasn’t issued any public statement about this matter.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)