By: Sara Wilbraham
Prior to the 2016 Presidential Election, Donald Trump used his Twitter (@realDonaldTrump) as a means of commentary on politics and pop culture, often commenting on everything from President Obama’s policies to current celebrity gossip. Since being elected as the 45th President of the United States of America, President Trump has continued to use the Twitter to update citizens on his policy views and his opinions concerning other countries and entities alike. It is no secret that his Twitter page has been a topic of conversation and controversy among his critics and, being that it is a public forum, has invited responses from supporters and opponents.
In June 2017, seven individuals along with the Knight First Amendment Institute (Knight Institute) brought a law suit against President Trump after being blocked from his Twitter account. The basis of the lawsuit was that the President’s Twitter is an official government account and that because of this, blocking users from interacting with it is a violation of the First Amendment.
The First Amendment articulates that citizens not only have the right to freedom of speech and of the press, but also the right of the people to petition the government for redress of grievances. The integration of technology in politics provided new ways for the people to exercise their First Amendment right. Past Supreme Court decisions, most recently Packingham v. North Carolina, have recognized that social media is central to public discourse, stating that Twitter is a place where users can petition their elected representatives and otherwise engage with them in a direct manner.
The seven plaintiffs cited the various comments they made in response to Trump’s tweets that led to them being blocked from the President’s account. They argued that the President’s Twitter amounted to a “digital town hall” where information is dispensed by the President and his aides to members of the public. By blocking people from viewing or replying to messages because they expressed views he did not like, the President violated their First Amendment rights. The lawsuit, backed by the Knight Institute argued that blocking critic on Twitter was “pernicious and unconstitutional.” One objection raised in the case was that @realDonaldTrump cannot be a public forum because Twitter is a private company. The Knight Institute suggested that if a county town hall meeting was held at a private community center and excluded people who belonged to a particular political party, it is unlikely anyone would defend those exclusions on the ground that the meetings were held on private property. The key fact to this point is that the President opened up a forum for expressive activity to the public via Twitter.
The case was heard by Southern District of New York Judge, Buchwald, who sought to address the growing issue of how the Constitution applies to social media platforms as related to public issues. Judge Buchwald rejected the argument that Trump’s account was operated as a personal account, but rather that he “uses the account to take actions that can be taken only by the president as president.” The judge declined to issue an injunction ordering Trump or the White House social media director, Dan Scavino, to unblock users, however her ruling stated what the Constitution requires and expected the White House to comply with such requirements. She stated that “[b]ecause no government official is above the law and because all government officials are presumed to follow the law once the judiciary has said what the law is, we must assume that the president and Scavino will remedy the blocking we have held to be unconstitutional.” Further, Judge Buchwald concluded that blocking individuals as a result of political views they have expressed is impermissible under the First Amendment.
Student Bio: Sara Wilbraham is a 3L at Suffolk University Law School and a Blog Editor for the Journal of High Technology Law. She graduated from Quinnipiac University with a BA in Business Marketing.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.