President Donald Trump violated the First Amendment rights of his critics by blocking them from his Twitter feed, a federal appeals court said Tuesday. It sets an important boundary for public officials who try to get around the requirements of open government by conducting public business in private forums.
As clear-cut as that situation was in Trump's case, though, it's often less so. This ruling highlights the need for more clarity about what constitutes a public forum in an age when politicians can routinely interact with millions of people outside of any formal governmental venue.
The First Amendment prevents the government from stifling opinions, but it doesn't require private citizens or entities to host those opinions. Average Twitter users aren't "censoring" other users by blocking them, because those who are blocked are still free to express their opinions elsewhere.
But when the Twitter user doing the blocking happens to be an elected politician — say, the leader of the free world — that complicates things. It would be one thing if Trump used his Twitter feed only to review movies or offer recipes. But in fact, that feed is his primary method of communicating policy and politics to the American people. He uses it to announce top-level hirings and firings, to explain major domestic and foreign policy decisions, to attack political adversaries and rally supporters.
Having turned his Twitter feed into, essentially, a national town hall forum where issues affecting the taxpayers are hashed out, Trump then blocked some of those taxpayers from the feed because he didn't like their criticism. That, said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, is akin to a government official throwing a citizen out of a public meeting for expressing conflicting opinions.
Trump's Twitter account bears "all the trappings of an official, state-run account," notes the opinion. In fact, it points out, former Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters early on that Trump's tweets "should be considered 'official statements by the President of the United States.' "
Trump made this one a slam-dunk by deciding to govern with his thumbs. But what of the elected official who uses his social-media account the way the rest of us do? Does that person have the right to block critics who want to argue policy while the official is tweeting about his grandchildren? Is it even possible for a prominent elected official to interact with the public on social media without some element of officialdom?
"The salient issues in this case arise from the decision of the President to use (Twitter) to conduct official business," wrote the court. "We do not consider or decide whether an elected official violates the Constitution by excluding persons from a wholly private social media account." At some point, though, we'll have to.
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