Parties settle First Amendment suit against council member, city

Cody Giles / The Transcript

Ward 4 Council member Bill Hickman is shown July 24, 2018, during a Norman City Council meeting.

NORMAN, Okla. — The parties in a First Amendment lawsuit involving the City of Norman, a council member and a resident have opted to settle.

A hearing scheduled for Friday in Cleveland County Court that would have involved the city, Ward 4 council member Bill Hickman and plaintiff Casey Holcomb has been canceled after Judge Thad Balkman approved the motion, his office confirmed Wednesday. The Court Clerk's Office also confirmed the hearing had been canceled, since a settlement is pending.

The lawsuit centered on comments and posts made by Holcomb on the Ward 4 Facebook page. It alleges that Hickman, in his role as a moderator of the page at that time, violated Holcomb's First Amendment rights by censoring his comments on the digital forum.

Hickman has since vacated his role as moderator of the page.

Kevin R. Kemper, attorney for Holcomb in the case, said the parties were still finalizing the settlement and that it will be made public once complete. Kemper said among the last few items to iron out is whether City Council needs to approve the settlement for it to be finalized.

Hickman announced last month he will resign from council Tuesday.

"I know Hickman will no longer be on council, but he agreed that he wouldn't be doing what he did," Kemper said. "Our position remains the same. Public officials' actions through social media are to protect free speech rights."

Kemper said the ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit earlier this year -- which said President Donald Trump cannot block Twitter users from seeing his tweets or interacting with him -- acted as some guidance for his client's case. The settlement offers a framework for future cases where public officials interact with constituents and have some control of public platforms.

Kemper said he wants to commend the city and Hickman for coming together to discuss the details of the case and come up with a way forward.

"The lawsuit, we believe, brought the city, Mr. Hickman and Mr. Holcomb to the table to talk about ways we can better protect free speech and public dialogue. This is an area in which the law is still in flux, and we think this agreement will set a good precedent."

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