Government spam blocking not a violation of First Amendment right to petition

Ferrone v. Onorato, No. 07-4299, 2008 WL 4763257 (3rd Cir. October 31, 2008)

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a county government did not violate a citizen’s First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of greivences when the county set its spam filters to block all email from the citizen’s domain. There was no evidence that such blocking was done with intent to deprive the citizen of his Constitutional rights, or with reckless disregard of those rights.

The founding fathers managed Spam

The Founding Fathers managed Spam

The Allegheny County, Pennsylvania office of economic devlopment was getting a lot of email from press@rock-port.com. A county official directed that his IT staff block all future messages sent from that address. Accidentally, however, the filter was set to block all messages from the @rock-port.com domain from being sent to any county account.

Plaintiff Ferrone, who was already in a dispute with the county, tried sending 14 email messages to various county officials over the course of five weeks. Because of the spam filter settings, the messages did not get through. So Ferrone sued, claiming a violation of the First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievences. The county moved for summary judgment and the court granted the motion. Ferrone sought review with the Third Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed.

The court held that the First Amendment’s prohibition on the “abridgement” of the right to petition the government requires a plaintiff to show an actual intent on the part of the government to diminish this right. The court refused to accept Ferrone’s argument that the act of blocking email messages alone, without an examination of the government’s intent, would rise to the level of a constitutional violation. Rejecting Ferrone’s attempts to “plump” up his “specious claim” by throwing in the First Amendment, the court held that no reasonable factfinder could have found a violation of Constitutional rights.