Federal Court Rules Politicians Cannot Block People on Social Media

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Since President Donald Trump took office, using Twitter to communicate with the public, attention has been drawn to whether government officials can block users for expressing opinions that the official doesn’t like. A group of Twitter users even sued the president and two White House aides regarding the issue, putting the question in the hands of the court.

As reported by Slate, Trump has continued to block Twitter users after assuming the position of president. Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute filed a lawsuit on behalf of the users who were blocked.

However, Trump isn’t the only political figure who has blocked social media users, and the issue was presented to a federal court.

While the court case that was reviewed is separate from the lawsuit filed against Trump and his aides, many parallels exist. Ultimately, a determination was made that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment prohibits persons who are holding political offices from blocking social media users based on the views they choose to express.

Davison v. Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, the case in question, involved Phyllis J. Randall, a chairwoman of the board.

Randall runs a Facebook page as a method for maintaining contact with constituents. “I really want to hear from ANY Loudon citizen on ANY issues, request, criticism, compliment, or just your thoughts,” wrote Randall. She further stated she considers it a “county Facebook page.”

Loudon resident Brian C. Davison took up Randall on the offer to express his thoughts and posted a comment on the page alleging corruption within the Loudon County’s School Board.

Randall stated she “had no idea” whether the allegations made were true and then deleted the thread, including Davison’s comment, and blocked Davison. At that time, Davison was unable to comment on posts or send private messages, but could view and share content on the page.

Davison was unblocked after a period of about 12 hours.

Davison filed a lawsuit alleging his right to free speech was violated during the incident. US District Judge James C. Cacheris explained the court’s decision.

During the proceedings, Randall admitted she blocked Davison “because she was offended by his criticism of her colleagues in the County government.” Cacheris asserted that by blocking Davison, Randall “engaged in viewpoint discrimination,” which is prohibited by the First Amendment.

Cacheris considered Randall’s reason for blocking Davison as “an illegitimate basis for her actions” and that Randall “acted unethically.”

Randall had argued that Davison had retained the ability to express his views using other forums, though Cacheris cited a decision made by the Supreme Court in Packingham v. North Carolina that determined social media could be “the most important” forum for exchanging views based on modern technology and that it was a suitable method for individuals to “petition their elected representatives and otherwise engage with them in a direct manner.”

The decision also calls Trump’s choice to block Twitter users into question as these users can see his tweets but cannot directly engage with them. The only potential difference is whether Trump’s personal page is meant to function as a possible public forum. Unlike Randall, he has not officially stated his personal account is supposed to operate in that manner.

However, Trump regularly uses his own account to discuss official policy and for law making purposes, so it is uncertain if that argument will hold.