Settlement requires Arkansas state Sen. Rapert to unblock critics on social media

Settlement agreement also requires state to pay $16,291 in legal fees
State Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, presides over a Senate committee at the state Capitol on March 14, 2018, in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas state senator will be required to unblock critics from his social media accounts under a settlement a national atheists’ group said it reached with the state on Wednesday.

American Atheists announced the settlement in its federal lawsuit against Arkansas over Republican Sen. Jason Rapert’s social media. According to a copy of the settlement that Rapert signed last week, the lawmaker will be required to remove any restrictions on his Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“This is a victory for freedom of speech and equality for atheists,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists, said in a statement released by the group.

Rapert said he didn’t discriminate against constituents and wasn’t admitting any wrongdoing by signing the settlement.

“The opportunity to settle this lawsuit without any admission of liability or wrongdoing saves time, money and effort for all concerned,” he said in a statement.

The lawmaker has sponsored several abortion restrictions as well as the law that required the state to allow a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds. Rapert ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor earlier this year.

If Rapert blocks any of the plaintiffs before Jan. 1, when he leaves office, he’ll have to document the basis for that restriction. The settlement also requires the state to pay $16,291 to American Atheists for expenses related to the lawsuit.

The group had sued on behalf of its members and four Arkansas residents who had been blocked from Rapert’s accounts. The plaintiffs had argued that Rapert’s accounts were a public forum that should be accessible to them. The plaintiffs argued that Rapert had blocked them after they criticized his position on several issues, including the Ten Commandments monument.

Rapert had argued that he had a First Amendment right to shut out those he said were personally attacking and bullying him. A trial had been set for October in the case.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, whose office represented Rapert, said the lawmaker was sued in his official capacity as a state official and did not comment further.