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Robinson v. Hunt County

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 15, 2019

DEANNA J. ROBINSON, Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
HUNT COUNTY, TEXAS; RANDY MEEKS, in his individual capacity and official capacity; JOHN DOES 1-10, in their individual capacities and their official capacities; JEFFERY HAINES, in his individual capacity and official capacity; DESTINY TWEEDY, in her individual capacity and official capacity; JACOB SMITH, in his individual capacity and official capacity, Defendants - Appellees

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before JOLLY, DENNIS, and HIGGINSON, Circuit Judges.

          STEPHEN A. HIGGINSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         Deanna J. Robinson sued Defendants Hunt County, Sheriff Randy Meeks, and several employees of the Hunt County Sheriffs Office (HCSO), alleging unconstitutional censorship on the HCSO Facebook page. The district court denied a preliminary injunction and later dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. Robinson appeals both decisions. We affirm the dismissal of Robinson's claims against the individual defendants and reverse the dismissal of her claims against Hunt County. In addition, we vacate the district court's preliminary injunction order and remand for further proceedings.

         I.

         The Hunt County Sheriff's Office, led by Sheriff Randy Meeks, maintains a Facebook page. During the time period relevant to this litigation, the "About" section of the HCSO Facebook page stated: "Welcome to the official Hunt County Sheriff's Office Facebook page. We welcome your input and POSITIVE comments regarding the Hunt County Sheriff's Office." The page description further stated: "The purpose of this site is to present matters of public interest within Hunt County, Texas. We encourage you to submit comments, but please note that this is NOT a public forum."

         On January 18, 2017, the HCSO Facebook account posted this message:

We find it suspicious that the day after a North Texas Police Officer is murdered we have received several anti police calls in the office as well as people trying to degrade or insult police officers on this page. ANY post filled with foul language, hate speech of all types and comments that are considered inappropriate will be removed and the user banned. There are a lot of families on this page and it is for everyone and therefore we monitor it extremely closely. Thank you for your understanding.

         Robinson alleges that the HCSO Facebook page is a public forum and that this post "reflects a deliberately overbroad and vague stated procedure and/or policy intended to chill critical, unpopular, or unfavorable speech from the public on the HCSO Facebook page."

         According to the complaint, Robinson and other Facebook users commented on the January 18, 2017 post and criticized it "for expressing a policy of deleting and censoring protected speech." Specifically, Robinson posted a comment stating that "degrading or insulting police officers is not illegal, and in fact has been ruled time and time again, by multiple U.S. courts as protected First Amendment speech," and "just because you consider a comment to be 'inappropriate' doesn't give you the legal right to delete it and/or ban a private citizen from commenting on this TAX PAYER funded social media site." Robinson also made highly offensive remarks about HCSO and the deceased police officer referenced in the January 18 Facebook post.

         Robinson alleges that, soon after she posted this comment, the defendants removed her comment and banned her from the HCSO Facebook page. The defendants also allegedly "removed several other public comments that expressed viewpoints critical of [d]efendants' stated policy of deleting and censoring protected speech, as well as other viewpoints unfavorable to [d]efendants." The complaint offers several examples of comments by other users that were allegedly deleted, including comments stating: "Just stopping by to see if your [sic] deleting posts" and "This is a public forum and deleting comments is paramount to shredding files you don't like." Robinson represents that she remains banned from commenting on the HCSO Facebook page.

         On February 23, 2017, Robinson sued Hunt County, Sheriff Meeks, and multiple unnamed defendants in federal district court. She later amended her complaint to add HCSO employees Jeffery Haines, Destiny Tweedy, and Jacob Smith as individual defendants. Robinson alleges that the defendants violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by engaging in viewpoint discrimination on the HCSO Facebook page, retaliating against her for her protected speech, placing an impermissible prior restraint on her speech, and deleting protected speech and banning her from the HCSO Facebook page without due process. The complaint further asserts that Hunt County has an official policy or longstanding custom of removing and censoring unfavorable speech on the HCSO Facebook page, and that this policy was developed, ratified, and enforced by Sheriff Meeks or another defendant with final policymaking authority over law enforcement in Hunt County.

         Robinson moved for a preliminary injunction requiring the defendants to release her ban from the HCSO Facebook page, restore her deleted comments, and cease deleting comments or banning individuals from the Facebook page on the basis of viewpoint. The district court denied a preliminary injunction, and later dismissed Robinson's complaint for failure to state a claim. Robinson timely appealed these decisions.

         II.

         We first address the dismissal of the individual defendants. The complaint states that each defendant is being sued in his or her individual capacity as to monetary damages, and in his or her official capacity as to injunctive and declaratory relief. The district court dismissed the individual capacity claims based on qualified immunity. The court also dismissed the official capacity claims after finding that they duplicated the claims against Hunt County. Robinson does not challenge either of these rulings.

         Instead, Robinson argues that she should have the opportunity to pursue equitable relief against the individual defendants in their individual rather than official capacities. This is inconsistent with the text of the complaint, which specifies that each individual defendant is being sued in his or her "individual capacity as to monetary damages" and "official capacity as to injunctive and declaratory relief." Robinson nonetheless contends that her individual capacity claims were ...


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