Supreme Court to Decide Whether Politicians can Block Social Media Critics

April 24, 2023

The Supreme Court said Monday it would hear two cases regarding whether government officials can block critics from commenting on their personal social media accounts.

One of the two cases, O’Connor-Ratcliff v Garnier, asks whether a public official engages in state action subject to the First Amendment by blocking a critic on his or her personal social media account when that official uses that account to feature their job or for other matters related to the public—but are matters that are not necessarily pursuant to their governmental duty.

That case involves two local school district officials who want the Supreme Court to reverse an appellate court ruling that they violated the First Amendment by blocking constituents on their personal social media sites, which school officials also used to communicate updates related to their jobs.

Parents in the school district are asserting that the First Amendment should apply because its protections bar government action against speech in pubic forum based on viewpoint. 

A second case, Lindke v Freed, asks whether a  public official’s social media activity can constitute state action only if the official used the account to perform governmental duties or it was under the authority of his or her office.

That case was brought by a Port Huron, Michigan resident who had been blocked from commenting on a city manager’s personal Facebook page. The city manager was using his personal page to post updates about the city’s response to Covid-19.

The resident is looking to reverse another appellate court ruling that rejected his First Amendment claims by finding that the city manager was not engaging in a state action when he blocked the resident.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court dismissed a case over former President Trump’s attempts to block critics from his personal Twitter account, which he had been using throughout his campaign for President and his Administration.

The Court also threw out an appeals court ruling that found Trump violated the First Amendment whenever he blocked a critic. 

The Trump Justice Department had argued that blocking people from the @realdonaldtrump account, which had 88 million followers at the time, was akin to elected officials refusing to allow their opponents’ yard signs on their own front lawns.

But a federal appeals court in New York had found that Trump used the account to make statements that were overwhelmingly official in nature.

In noting at the time that Twitter had suspended Trump’s account following the deadly January 6, 2021 insurrection “due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a separate opinion, “As Twitter made clear, the right to cut off speech lies most powerfully in the hands of private digital platforms.” (Twitter has since reinstated the account.)

Thomas agreed with his colleagues about the outcome of the Trump case, but he added that the situation raised “interesting and important questions.”

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