It’s been a contentious week in the battle between American Atheists and Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert.
Last week, the atheists filed another lawsuit against Rapert for blocking their four clients on social media. They say he did it because of their atheism and their critical views of his policies, preventing them from keeping tabs on what he was doing in the government on the taxpayers’ dime, a move AA says is illegal. (An earlier lawsuit was dismissed on a technicality; AA re-filed the lawsuit to correct the mistake.)
Both sides were in court on Monday to plead their cases. Or at least the atheists were. American Atheists released a statement afterwards about how Rapert was a no-show at the hearing:
“Three of our plaintiffs drove to Little Rock for this hearing, even though one lives more than three hours away. Senator Rapert could have done taxpayers the courtesy of not needlessly drawing out this lawsuit if he had just walked the few blocks from his office to the courthouse,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, litigation counsel at American Atheists. “He is eager to say he’s only a part-time legislator but apparently does not have the time to spare to make his case in court and under oath.”
To be fair, Rapert didn’t have to be there. But by not making an appearance and only sending an affidavit from a distance, he also avoided having to answer any questions about the case in front of the judge.
It’s too bad. There was a lot to ask him about. For example, the affidavit claims that there’s this disclaimer on his Facebook page that Rapert says has “been in effect since before this lawsuit was filed”:
Anyone who engages in bullying, intimidation, personal attacks, uses profanity or attempts to mislead others with false information, will find their privilege to post on this page revoked. Thank you for respecting others. This page is not paid for or administered by a government entity.
American Atheists told me that’s disingenuous at best. The wording changed earlier this month, and it used to say that the page was intended for communicating “with constituents… as a courtesy.”
Rapert also says he doesn’t have an “official” government account and that his Twitter account is a personal one. Yet when he was temporarily banned in December for a nasty tweet about Muslims, he told local reporters in a statement that he “simple shared” an article on social media and “As a political leader, I discuss issues that are important to our community, state and nation.” That’s as good as official without using that word.
That will all be addressed by AA as they seek a preliminary injunction against him.
For what it’s worth, when I asked Rapert why he was a no-show, his response was (as expected) insulting and defensive:
I was not required to appear sir. You must not understand how that type of hearing actually works. I sent an affidavit and my attorneys represented me while I represented my constituents at the Arkansas Capitol. The American Atheists Attorney should be ashamed for those misleading comments. From what I was advised the hearing did not go well for them at all. Their lawsuit is politically motivated and frivolous.
Last night, Rapert doubled down on all that in a video he posted on Facebook (via his group National Association of Christian Lawmakers):
… Today, I wanted to update you, because yesterday, for the first time in my life… I was sued in federal court. The American Atheists organization, based in Washington D.C. — them and four others that they found to join them in that suit, tried to sue me and actually filed a restraining order against me in the federal court in the Eastern District of Arkansas.
And what was very interesting is that, aside from the fact that, absolutely, this lawsuit is politically motivated and is frivolous, they saw in their motion to actually silence me. So it’s very interesting. They filed for a temporary restraining order that said that the court should silence and prevent me from saying anything that might be considered negative against another political belief or another religious belief.
This, my friends, is an absolute violation of my own First Amendment rights. And so we believe that we were successful. The Arkansas attorney general represented me in my official capacity, and then my own personal attorneys had defended me in my individual capacity.
We believe that we’re gonna be successful because there is no evidence to prove the allegations that they have, and we believe we’ll be ultimately successful because I am an individual citizen. I’m an ordained minister of the Gospel, but I also happen to be an elected state senator, and all of my social media platforms are actually personally run. No government staff runs my accounts or assists with my accounts. No government funds pay for the accounts. And so immediately, after announcing the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Atheists, even the Council on American Islamic Relations, came out swinging at me very very hard…
American Atheists isn’t based in Washington, D.C. They’re not trying to “silence” Rapert, merely calling for him to stop using the same social media accounts he uses as a government official to trash people for their religious beliefs. (Rapert seems to think it’s not an “official” government account unless the government is literally paying for it, which makes me wonder what he thinks Twitter and Facebook cost…) And just because a government staffer isn’t running his accounts doesn’t mean they’re not the accounts he uses to promote his work as a government official.
Anyway, his rebuttal is weak and it doesn’t address the actual claims AA makes against him. He thinks he should be able to get away with bad behavior because the government didn’t call dibs on his Twitter and Facebook accounts. But we’ll find out soon if the judge agrees with that assessment.