Is It A Violation Of First Amendment Rights When Donald Trump Blocks Critics On Twitter?

Blocking people on social media is commonplace, but what  happens when the President uses Twitter to make pronouncements on public policy and blocks those opposing? Is this just engaging in normal behavior on social media, or censorship? Some of those blocked by Donald Trump on Twitter are now protesting that their First Amendment rights are being violated. Bloomberg News reports:

President Donald Trump’s Twitter account is once again the subject of debate, as the Knight First Amendment Institute urged him to unblock individuals in a letter sent to the White House on Tuesday.

The institute, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Columbia University, said it believes his account is a “designated public forum” and threatened legal action if the president didn’t comply. In a letter addressed to Trump, his counsel, press secretary and social media director, the institute wrote on behalf of Holly O’Reilly and Joseph M. Papp, both of whom criticized the president on the social media platform in recent weeks and said they were blocked.

“The blocking of users from your Twitter account suppresses speech in a number of ways,” the letter stated. “Users who have been blocked cannot follow you on Twitter, and they are limited in their ability to view  your tweets, find your tweets using Twitter’s search function, and learn which accounts follow you. They are also limited in their ability to participate in comment threads associated with your tweets.” Replying to messages posted by Trump on Twitter, often in the form of a thread, is common practice on the platform, both by fans and detractors of the Republican president.

The article goes on to note that Sean Spicer has said that Trump’s tweets should be considered official statements, which lends credence to arguments that blocking someone from Donald Trump’s account is not the same as a regular Twitter user doing so. As I noted yesterday, Trump is expected to be live tweeting his views when James Comey testifies tomorrow.

One of those blocked by Donald Trump has an op-ed in The Washington Post explaining why she believes her rights have been violated:

Press secretary Sean Spicer said just yesterday that Trump’s tweets are considered “official statements by the president of the United States.” When Trump blocks people for disagreeing with him, he isn’t just deciding not to hear our voices; he’s cutting us off from receiving these official statements. So, by blocking people on Twitter, Trump is effectively removing the radio from his version of FDR’s fireside chats, or more accurately, closing the door of a Town Hall meeting to everyone except people who agree with or say nice things about him.

In March, a Virginia federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against Loudoun County for allegedly deleting a comment left by a local resident who criticized a decision not to appoint a special prosecutor. The judge ruled that the deletion was constitutional because the plaintiff had attempted to “hijack the discussion” in violation of a government social-media policy that permitted the removal of “clearly off-topic” comments. The case is on appeal.

The ACLU of Indiana last year filed lawsuits against three small cities in the state for allegedly censoring critical Facebook users. Before a judge weighed in, the cases settled with the municipalities agreeing to lift the Facebook bans on the users who went to court.

The First Amendment Institute’s letter focuses on Mr. Trump’s @realDonaldTrump account, which currently has 31.7 million followers. It makes no claims about the other main White House Twitter feeds, @WhiteHouse and @POTUS, nor does it discuss Mr. Trump’s predecessor.

The Obama administration said it never blocked people from following @POTUS. The former president’s @BarackObama account specified that it wasn’t part of the government but run by Barack Obama‘s political arm.

The article also quotes  Ken Paulson, dean of media and entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University:

It’s a novel and ambitious argument and certainly in the public interest, but also feels like a tough sell. Is the president’s Twitter account, established well before he was elected, a public forum where interactive free expression is expected or more like a newsletter, where the communication is all one way?

I do think municipalities that establish Facebook pages and invite citizen input are in fact establishing public forums, but I’m not sure that Donald Trump’s brief bursts of opinion are the same thing.

Propublica cited additional examples of pubic officials blocking critics on social media.

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2 Comments

  1. 1
    Robert J Kolker says:

    The Donald's Twitter Account is private.

    Is it unconstitutional for President Trump to lock his door and keep the public out of his living space?  President Trump is without his rights to keep a private facility private. 

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    I have my doubts that any lawsuit against Trump will be successful, but it is not certain that his Twitter account is private when a White House spokesman has said that his Tweets should be considered official statements.

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