Social Media

Lawsuit challenges Trump's Twitter blocks

blocked by trump 

Is it unconstitutional for the president of the United States to block a Twitter follower?

That's the question raised by a lawsuit filed July 11 by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf several individuals who say they've been blocked by President Donald Trump's Twitter account.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, also names White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Social Media Director Dan Scavino as defendants.

The complainants argue that being blocked violates their First Amendment right to freedom of the press and redress of grievances. By limiting their ability to follow issuances from the president and his advisers, blocked users are shut out of ongoing political and policy debates. The suit charges that the complainants are being blocked on the basis of their viewpoints and utterances on Twitter, and asks that they be permitted to access the feeds of the accounts in question, and interact with tweets.

The suit points out that the presidential Twitter feed is treated by the National Archives and Records Administration as official presidential records, and that statements made on the Twitter feed have been cited by federal judges in court opinions and given the status of official statements by the president's aides.

The Knight Center initially complained about the blocks in a public letter to Trump dated June 6.

"Your Twitter account is a designated public forum for essentially the same reasons that open city council meetings and school board meetings are," wrote Knight fellows Jameel Jaffer, Katie Fallow and Alex Abdo. "Further, it is plain that our clients were blocked from your account on the basis of their viewpoints. Each of them was blocked soon after having disagreed with or ridiculed you. Other users appear to have been blocked for similar reasons."

Trump isn't the only public official who blocks critics on social media. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin has been criticized for the practice, and #BlockedByBevin has become a popular hashtag among the state's political insiders. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was urged by the American Civil Liberties Union to stop deleting critical comments on his Facebook page. The ACLU characterized those deletions as unconstitutional censorship of free speech.

So far, however, it appears that the right of access to the Twitter feeds of public officials has yet to be litigated. Twitter is a private company, and individuals who sign up to use the service agree to certain terms and conditions, including the use of blocking tools. However, there is also Supreme Court precedent barring the government from regulating speech on the grounds of opinion or viewpoint.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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