Written by Steven L. Foss
On May 23, 2018, a federal district judge ruled that President Donald J. Trump’s blocking of Twitter users critical of him violates the First Amendment. Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the Southern District of New York, in a 75-page order on cross–motions for summary judgment, determined that the President’s Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump and the “interactive space” it generates constitutes a public forum under First Amendment jurisprudence. Consequently, when the President blocks someone from viewing and interacting with his profile, he commits unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.
Knight Institute v. Trump
The controversy began when seven individuals who criticized President Trump on Twitter were blocked from the President’s @realDonaldTrump account. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed suit on behalf of the blocked individuals, claiming that the President used the blocking function to suppress political dissent in violation of their First Amendment rights. Judge Buchwald rejected the argument that the President’s personal First Amendment right of association outweighed the plaintiffs’ own First Amendment rights. And, while recognizing that there is generally no “right to be heard” by the government, Judge Buchwald distinguished that principle from the plaintiffs’ claims. She discussed the difference between Twitter’s blocking feature and its “muting” feature, whereby users can choose not to see the activity of a particular user. Unlike blocking, when user A is muted by user B, user A can still view, reply to, and retweet user B’s tweets, even though user B will not see these replies. Blocking users that the President does not wish to interact with is not functionally equivalent to muting them because the blocked users cannot reply to the President’s tweets and engage other users in dialogue concerning those tweets. The court noted that muting users that the President does not wish to engage with would serve the President’s own interests equally well while not infringing on the rights of individuals to speak to — but not necessarily be heard by — the government in a public forum.
Forum Analysis and Viewpoint Discrimination
In analyzing First Amendment claims, a preliminary question asks what type of forum the speech takes place in or is excluded from. The court in Knight Institute v. Trump determined that the President’s Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump and the “interactive space” created around it by virtue of Twitter’s features is a designated public forum for free speech purposes. Judge Buchwald rejected the argument that because the President once used the account as a private citizen, the handle is not a public forum. Rather, because the President chose to use the account in a manner similar to a traditional public forum, the handle must adhere to traditional First Amendment protections of subject matter and viewpoint neutrality.
In traditional and designated public fora, government regulations of speech must be “narrowly drawn to achieve a compelling state interest” in order to pass constitutional muster. While some subject matter and speaker restrictions can be constitutional under certain circumstances, viewpoint restrictions are generally considered to be forbidden. In the Knight Institute case, Judge Buchwald held that the blocking of users critical of President Trump was “indisputably” unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, and went beyond merely choosing not to amplify the voices of those he disagrees with.
Declaratory or Injunctive Relief?
A more vexing problem for the court and those concerned with separation of powers was the type of remedy available to the plaintiffs. Citing multiple U.S. Supreme Court cases, Judge Buchwald rejected the government’s argument that a court “categorically lack[s]” authority to order the President to unblock Twitter users. However, the court did not grant the plaintiffs both declaratory and injunctive relief, as they had requested. It declared the President’s blocking unconstitutional and left open the possibility that if the President refused to unblock the plaintiffs, an action for injunctive relief could be brought to compel the President or his staff to unblock them. The Court held unblocking to be a purely “ministerial” action, involving little or no discretion (given the court’s ruling that blocking is unconstitutional, and the President’s general duty to comply with the law). Requiring such a ministerial action would be a “minimal” intrusion on the President’s inherent authority as chief executive. The court opined that even if it lacked the power to issue an injunction against the President, it could enjoin his social media director and co–defendant Dan Scavino, who also has access to the account.
In the wake of Knight Institute, it seems that government officials or entities operating social media accounts for official purposes must not restrict users from interaction based on viewpoint. There are similar lawsuits pending in other district courts, and they may take notice of Judge Buchwald’s ruling. They could also be critical of the expansion of First Amendment protections into cyberspace, heeding Justice Samuel Alito’s concurrence in Packingham v. North Carolina where he cautioned against Justice Kennedy’s broad language in striking down a law forbidding sex offenders from accessing vast swathes of the Internet. A federal district court in Kentucky denied a preliminary injunction preventing Governor Matt Bevin from blocking critics on social media, holding that the plaintiffs there were unlikely to succeed because they are simply not being heard by the government. The case is ongoing.
The Department of Justice disagrees with the Knight Institute decision and is reviewing its options, including appeal. We shall have to wait and see. In the meantime, given politicians’ increasing online presence and the growing recognition that public fora extend beyond traditional physical spaces like sidewalks and parks, public officials should exercise caution when deciding how to deal with dissent on social media.
Hargis v. Bevin, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54428 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 30, 2018).
Issie Lapowsky & Louise Matsakis, Trump Can’t Block Critics on Twitter. What This Means For You, Wired (May 23, 2018, 6:29 P.M.).
John Herman & Charlie Savage, Trump’s Blocking of Twitter Users Is Unconstitutional, Judge Says, N.Y. Times, May 23, 2018.
Knight First Amendment Inst. at Columbia Univ. v. Trump, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87432 (S.D.N.Y. May 23, 2018).
Packingham v. North Carolina, 137 S. Ct. 1730 (2017).
Press Release, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, Federal Court Rules that President Trump’s Blocking of Twitter Critics Violates First Amendment (May 23, 2018).
Photo courtesy of The Economist.