Constituents file federal suit against Ogdensburg mayor over blocks on social media | St. Lawrence County

OGDENSBURG — The blocking of constituents by Ogdensburg Mayor Jeffrey M. Skelly on his personal Facebook profile has led to a federal lawsuit being filed by a small group of Ogdensburg residents.

The lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court, Plattsburgh, by the law firm of Gleason, Dunn, Walsh & O’Shea of Albany on behalf of their clients Cynthia Layng, Douglas Loffler, Brian Mitchell and Angela McRoberts.

The plaintiffs, according to court documents, state they “are active and vocal participants in discussions regarding the affairs and policies of the City and have been denied a voice on a social media platform maintained by the defendant, Mayor Jeffrey M. Skelly.”

“The plaintiffs allege that the defendant Mayor’s act of ‘blocking’ plaintiffs from participating in the ongoing discussions regarding the affairs and policies of the City constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution,” the complaint reads. “Upon information and belief, dozens of other citizens who, like the plaintiffs, have expressed viewpoints on the Mayor’s Facebook profile that criticize the Mayor and/or his policies have been “blocked” from participating in the ongoing social media discussions regarding the affairs of the City taking place on the Mayor’s Facebook profile.”

On Monday, the non-partisan group called Citizens Watch, held a press conference on the steps of City Hall to announce the lawsuit.

“This gathering tonight is a critical step in protecting Ogdensburg’s citizens from what we believe is a blatant erosion of their first amendment rights,” stated Maureen Brashaw to a group of about 75 supporters announcing the lawsuit. “As has been demonstrated, Mayor Skelly uses his private Facebook page as a public forum, to air city/political business. He censures those who ask for information, question his actions or provide opposing opinions on his posts, by blocking them.”

Ms. Brashaw continued that when the mayor blocks people it denies the public critical information because he uses it for city business. She is calling for the mayor to provide an open forum and reinstate those who have been blocked.

“All voices need to be heard, not just the feedback the mayor wants to hear. We are speaking for those that have been denied and cannot,” Ms. Brashaw said.

A call to Mr. Skelly for comment was unanswered, and his mailbox was full so a message could not be left.

Court documents say that Mr. Skelly uses his Facebook profile to announce his mayoral agenda and update his constituents on projects and initiatives that he has advanced as mayor and that he has engaged in a pattern of conduct where he “blocks” people who express viewpoints that are at odds with his or are critical of his administration.

An example was cited on Aug. 25, 2020 when Mr. Skelly published a Facebook post where he mentioned the previous evening’s council meeting. According to the court documents, Cynthia Layng posted a comment calling the council idiots and Mr. Skelly blocked her from his Facebook profile.

“Plaintiff Layng knew the defendant had blocked her when she could no longer locate his Facebook profile,” according to the complaint.

Another example was on or around Aug. 25, 2020, when Mr. Skelly published a Facebook post stating that he wanted the blue light bulbs at the Ogdensburg Fire Department taken down.

“These light bulbs were in place to honor the life of an Ogdensburg City Police Officer who had recently committed suicide. Plaintiff Douglas Loffler (“plaintiff Loffler”) commented on this post, criticizing the defendant’s leadership skills. Plaintiff Loffler also suggested that the defendant should have gone to the Ogdensburg Fire Department to discuss his concerns with them directly instead of posting about it on Facebook. Defendant subsequently blocked plaintiff Loffler from his Facebook profile. Plaintiff Loffler knew defendant had blocked him when he could not locate defendant’s Facebook profile the next day,” stated the complaint.

Similar examples were written for Brian Mitchell and Angela McRoberts, both of whom had been blocked by the mayor.

According to court documents, “users who have expressed support for the defendant’s performance as Mayor on his Facebook profile have not been blocked. Plaintiffs have been and continue to be excluded from the public dialogue concerning the affairs of the City occurring on defendant’s official Facebook profile. Defendant’s viewpoint-based exclusion of plaintiff from his official Facebook profile filters the speech in that forum and causes a chilling effect for others from similarly expressing dissenting viewpoints.”

The court documents state that the plaintiffs demand a jury trial.

The plaintiffs are seeking “injunctive relief” prohibiting Mr. Skelly from blocking them from his Facebook profile, along with unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and reimbursement for court fees.

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