The Law and Public Officials on Social Media: Blocking Beware?

We live in an in ever-increasing era in which the internet intersects with politics. The 2016 Presidential campaign was dominated by Facebook posts, clickbait, internet-driven funding campaigns, “fake news”, and major politicians using Twitter and Facebook to get their messages out. A foreseeable result of this has been politicians wanting to control their message by determining whom may have access to their sites.

One June 13 the Washington Post reported that author Stephen King had been blocked on Twitter by @realdonaldtrump, the Twitter account Donald Trump uses regularly instead of the official @POTUS account. Did this action violate the First Amendment?

Legal scholars at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute think so. “Blocking users from your Twitter account violates the First Amendment,” the lawyers write in a letter to Trump. “When the government makes a space available to the public at large for the purpose of expressive activity, it creates a public forum from which it may not constitutionally exclude individuals on the basis of viewpoint.”

And here’s a law prof’s discussion of free speech rights relative to websites that are clearly government sponsored. It provides some leeway to politicians’ own sites:

Sometimes individual politicians or private political organizations have their own independent social media presence. Depending upon how they are set up, these may not be considered government forums, even though public officials are using them. Individual politicians who set up their own Facebook pages or Twitter accounts, without governmental sponsorship or funding, are probably not subject to the limitations discussed here.

Donald Trump clearly is a businessman with his own private affairs and interests outside the office as President. He will likely insist he has his name and image to protect and will do all within his power to do so. This presents a new area of the law that needs researched.

References

  1. Mari Cheney, Blocked on Twitter…By the President – AALL Computing Services SIS, http://blog.cssis.org/2017/06/19/blocked-on-twitter-by-the-president/ (last visited Jun 19, 2017).
  2. Timothy B. Lee, Users threatened to sue Trump for blocking them on Twitter. Experts say it’s a long shot. Vox (2017), https://www.vox.com/new-money/2017/6/8/15758408/trump-twitter-blocking-lawsuit (last visited Jun 19, 2017).
  3. Charles Ornstein, Trump Isn’t the Only Politician Blocking Constituents on Twitter, Slate, 2017 (last visited Jun 19, 2017).
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One thought on “The Law and Public Officials on Social Media: Blocking Beware?

  • June 22, 2017 at 6:00 am
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    Our government places a high priority on the public being allowed to speak their mind about elected officials as well as other public figures. People in the public eye get less protection from defamatory statements and face a higher burden when attempting to win a defamation lawsuit.

    Reply

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