The question of whether public leaders who block citizens on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook violate the First Amendment was brought up again before the Supreme Court on Monday in a case involving former President Donald Trump.
The Supreme Court will consider the appeal this term, and it will have an impact on how government representatives engage the public on social media.
In one instance, O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier, two elected members of a California school board in the vicinity of San Diego barred parents of students in their district from using their own social media accounts after they voiced concerns about racial relations and other issues. One parent made the same comment on 42 posts, according to the officials, who claimed that the volume of messages amounted to spam.
In another instance, Lindke v. Freed, the city manager of Port Huron, Michigan, deleted a number of citizens from his Facebook page. Among them was a person who complained in a post that city officials were dining at a “pricey” restaurant during the COVID-19 epidemic rather than interacting with locals.
According to Katie Fallow, senior counsel at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, “as more and more public officials use social media to communicate with their constituents about official business, public officials’ social media accounts are playing the role that has historically been played by city council meetings, school board meetings, and other offline public forums.”
“Government officials can’t block people from these forums simply because they don’t like what they’re saying,” Fallow said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s the president or a local city manager.”
During Trump’s presidency, a similar controversy that involved some of his supporters who were blocked from his Twitter account reached the Supreme Court. Since Trump had left office by the time the Supreme justices considered the case, the justices rejected it as moot. In the case, a federal appeals court in New York had ruled against Trump.
With regard to applying “old” First Amendment principles to social media, Justice Clarence Thomas claimed that ruling created more general concerns about the influence of social media corporations.
“Google is the gatekeeper between that user and the speech of others 90% of the time,” Thomas said. “Users rarely know exactly where to find something on the Internet.” It can prevent people from accessing certain content by manually changing the results of autocomplete, deindexing, or downlisting a search result.