Arkansas State Sen. Jason Rapert has lost yet another legal battle in his pathetic quest to avoid online criticism from atheists.
It’s the latest twist in a battle that started in 2018, when American Atheists filed a lawsuit against the lawmaker best known for erecting an unconstitutional Ten Commandments monument outside the State Capitol. They claimed Rapert had blocked four residents on Facebook and Twitter because they were atheists and because they were critical of his policy positions. Whatever the reason, that would be illegal.
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.”
But the lawsuit is still going on, and there’s a major update this week.
In short, Judge Baker is forcing Rapert to turn over a giant trove of documents he’s been trying to hide from the court. They include 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 now has until August 5 to turn over the documents. A trial is set to begin on October 3.
Today, American Atheists is celebrating their latest victory, though they acknowledge the case isn’t over yet:
“Judge Baker saw through Rapert’s desperate attempts to avoid accountability and sided with us on every issue we raised,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Legal Counsel for American Atheists. “It’s outrageous that he wasted the court’s time—and our own—to try to deny us access to basic documents. If his decision to censor our clients wasn’t illegal and discriminatory, he should have nothing to hide.”
It’ll be fascinating to see how Jason Rapert spoke about atheists, and how he may have used his social media accounts to advance his theocratic agenda, after that information is handed over to the court.
For what it’s worth, Rapert was granted qualified immunity in this case, which means that even if he loses, he wouldn’t be on the hook for any financial penalty. And until there’s a final ruling, he won’t have to unblock the atheists on social media.
He won’t be in power for much longer. But at least his petty inability to deal with criticism means he’ll be spending his final months in office dealing with a trial that centers around his own fragile ego.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)