Together with Christopher Day, Esq., CIR is representing Richard Rynearson, a retired Air Force command pilot and field grade officer, whose right to free speech was violated when Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass banned him from an official Air Force Facebook page because he criticized one of her posts.
As a concerned citizen and retired member of the U.S. Air Force, Rynearson follows, documents, and at times, criticizes Air Force policy. Recently, he has become concerned that the Air Force is embracing divisive identity politics, that leadership has prioritized sensitivity to a degree that it is corrupting the strength and character of the Air Force, and that leaders have become hostile to critics of either of these policy directions.
On a few occasions, Rynearson has commented on the official Facebook page for the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (“CMSAF”), which was established as an official channel of communication between the Air Force and the public in 2013. It is accessible to any member of the public, and people may freely discuss Air Force policy in the comment section.
The Air Force’s Anti-Social Media Page
On November 22, 2020, Chief Bass published a post on the official CMSAF Facebook page, saying, “there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not thankful for each of YOU. The people, Airmen and families, that make up the strongest Air Force in the world.” She then encouraged readers to reflect on the things for which they were thankful.
Rynearson replied that he was thankful that other branches of the military were concentrating on conducting warfare so that the Air Force could concentrate on “making sure we all feel good about ourselves” and that “nobody is offended or feels like a victim.” He included, “I am thankful the phrase ‘air power’ has now been replaced with #CarePower” and attached a link to an image of the Care Bears.
Chief Bass made clear that she personally objected to Rynearson’s comment. Shortly after Rynearson replied to Chief Bass’s post, she responded, “you couldn’t be more wrong, my friend.”
Within hours, Rynearson’s posts were deleted, and he was banned from commenting on the CMSAF Facebook page and from messaging the page. Rynearson attempted to contact the CMSAF office to have his ban rescinded. He even alerted Chief Bass that blocking him from an official government Facebook page violated the First Amendment, but Chief Bass did not respond. Rynearson’s ban remains in force.
Protecting Political Speech Online
On August 27, CIR filed a lawsuit challenging Rynearson’s ban as an unlawful restriction of his right to free speech under the First Amendment. Courts have ruled that official government social media pages are public forums, which means that the government may not deny anyone access to those pages based on the viewpoint that they express.
Chief Bass or someone that she commissioned to manage the CMSAF Facebook page objected to the content of Rynearson’s speech and decided to ban him on that basis. Rynearson alerted Chief Bass that her actions were unconstitutional and gave her several opportunities to remedy the situation, but she declined. After repeated attempts to reach out to the CMSAF office directly, Rynearson decided to pursue legal action.
Social media remains one of the most popular ways for people to stay informed about important government issues, and it is perhaps the most direct way for citizens to engage in free and open discussions with government officials. Government officials cannot decide who has the privilege of engaging in political speech on these platforms simply because they do not like what their critics have to say. It is crucial that the courts reaffirm the right of individuals to engage publicly in political speech regardless of their point of view.
The Center for Individual Rights has filed suit against Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass for banning a retired Air Force pilot, Richard Rynearson, from an official government Facebook page because he…