The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University wrote the letter on behalf of a group of Twitter users who were blocked by Trump after posting negative comments on his feed, including a GIF of Pope Francis looking depressed during a recent visit from the president alongside the caption, “This is pretty much how the whole world sees you.”
Jules Suzdaltsev, a journalist and former Seeker video host, was blocked from Trump’s account after tweeting that the president should spend more time with his son, Barron. A vocal and frequent online critic of Trump, Suzdaltsev said that the blocking was bittersweet.
“On the one hand, the President of the United States was so annoyed by my comments that he literally blocked himself from having to see them,” wrote Suzdaltsev in an email. “On the other, it kind of put a damper on being able to easily join (and occasionally dominate) the political discourse in his @ replies.”
The Knight Institute’s letter highlights a curious political wrinkle in an era of abundant social media posts. It claims that blocking Twitter users violates their First Amendment right to free speech because the @realDonaldTrump account operates as a “designated public forum.”
The Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot censor political speech in a public forum like a street corner or a public park. The president, in choosing to use his Twitter account to make political decrees and engage with the public, has effectively turned his Twitter feed into an online street corner, the group argued.
“Though the architects of the Constitution surely didn’t contemplate presidential Twitter accounts, they understood that the president must not be allowed to banish views from public discourse simply because he finds them objectionable,” said Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s executive director, in a statement. “Having opened this forum to all comers, the president can’t exclude people from it merely because he dislikes what they’re saying.”
In its statement, the Knight Institute threatened to take “legal action” if Trump or his aides did not voluntarily unblock the critics.
David Greene is the civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization that works to protect free speech and privacy online. He said the Knight Foundation letter makes a “really good argument,” and pointed to a similar controversy in San Francisco, where community members are asking for Twitter “block lists” from all City Council members.
Greene said he believed that any public figure with a social media account that includes the ability to comment has essentially created a public forum. While a private citizen can block anyone they want on a service like Facebook or Twitter, public officials are bound by the Constitution.
“A public forum can only be regulated with content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions, and you cannot exercise viewpoint discrimination,” said Greene.
While no case exactly like this has ever been argued in the courts, Greene cited a landmark 1974 decision from Hawaii where a district judge ruled that a Honolulu mayor couldn’t ban a reporter from general press conferences just because he disliked the reporter’s stories.
The closest case that ever made it to the Supreme Court involved a Virginia public university denying printing funds to a Christian newspaper because the university believed it would breach the establishment clause separating church and state. The court ruled in favor of the Christian newspaper, saying that the state institution violated the paper’s free speech based on its religious viewpoint.
Greene said that some people might dismiss the complaints of a few Twitter trolls, but he personally thinks the blocking case is, as he put it, a “big deal.”
“It’s the president of the United States blocking people. It’s the president restricting First Amendment rights,” Greene remarked. “We don’t know that it’s going to stop at a few people. This is a president who says that this is how he prefers to communicate with the public. That he could, at the same time, strictly limit with whom he communicates is concerning.”
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