Federal Court Rules Against Politicians Blocking Critics On Social Media With Similar Suit Pending Against Donald Trump

In June I looked at complaints against Donald Trump for blocking people from his Twitter account. With social media becoming the major arena for the discussion of public issues, those blocked on Facebook or Twitter have decreased opportunity to both follow public debate and to respond. This becomes more significant as public officials use social media for matters of public policy. A federal court has ruled against a public official who has blocked users in response to criticism. Slate reports:

Does the First Amendment bar public officials from blocking people on social media because of their viewpoint?

That question has hung over the White House ever since Donald Trump assumed the presidency and continued to block users on Twitter. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University has sued the president on behalf of blocked users, spurring a lively academic debate on the topic. But Trump isn’t the only politician who has blocked people on social media. This week, a federal court weighed in on the question in a case with obvious parallels to Trump’s. It determined that the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause does indeed prohibit officeholders from blocking social media users on the basis of their views.

Davison v. Loudoun County Board of Supervisors involved the chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Phyllis J. Randall. In her capacity as a government official, Randall runs a Facebook page to keep in touch with her constituents. In one post to the page, Randall wrote, “I really want to hear from ANY Loudoun citizen on ANY issues, request, criticism, compliment, or just your thoughts.” She explicitly encouraged Loudoun residents to reach out to her through her “county Facebook page.”

Brian C. Davidson criticized Loudoun County’s School Board and then sued after being temporarily blocked.  U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris wrote in his decision:

Defendant’s offense at Plaintiff’s views was therefore an illegitimate basis for her actions—particularly given that Plaintiff earned Defendant’s ire by criticizing the County government. Indeed, the suppression of critical commentary regarding elected officials is the quintessential form of viewpoint discrimination against which the First Amendment guards. By prohibiting Plaintiff from participating in her online forum because she took offense at his claim that her colleagues in the County government had acted unethically, Defendant committed a cardinal sin under the First Amendment.

This would seem to be relevant to Donald Trump’s actions in blocking people who disagree with him. The Wall Street Journal noted the ramifications of this decision for a similar case against Donald Trump:

The lawsuit against Mr. Trump in federal court in Manhattan was brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf of seven users whom Mr. Trump blocked.

“We hope the courts look to this opinion as a road map in holding that it is unconstitutional for President Trump to block his critics on Twitter,” said Alex Abdo, senior staff attorney at the institute.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

There is one potential difference as technically Trump is using his personal account, although he is using it to issue pronouncements related to government policy. Sean Spicer previously said that Trump’s tweets should be considered official statements.  Slate addressed this point:

There’s just one lingering issue with this comparison: It isn’t clear whether Trump intends his personal Twitter page to function as a public forum the way Randall did. (Trump has a presidential account, @POTUS, from which he does not block users—but he doesn’t use it for interesting communications.) Public officials have more latitude to censor expression in personal, private forums than they do in forums that they use to speak in their official capacity. Trump’s lawyers will almost certainly argue that his personal Twitter feed is a private forum, not a government project.

But that argument will likely fail. As Trump’s recent tweets banning transgender military service demonstrate, the president uses Twitter not just to convey official policy but also for lawmaking. This habit would seem to turn his feed into a quintessential public forum. And so, under the First Amendment, he lacks the power to block those users who tweet their discontent at @realDonaldTrump.

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4 Comments

  1. 1
    djchefron says:

    So why do you block people who don't worship at the alter of St. Bernie?

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    I don’t. If you look around you will see comments from opponents of him.

    Plus a private blog is not comparable to a public official’s site.

  3. 3
    djchefron says:

    True but when one come to the defense of Hillary, PBO or the Democratic party this site seems not to be , lets just say not interested 

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    Of course on two out of three. This is a liberal site, and therefore not interested in a corrupt conservative war monger like Clinton or a party which has moved to the right and which would rig its nomination to nominate Clinton. On the other hand, there are multiple posts defending Obama here from right wing attacks (while also disagreeing with some of his actions).

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