Trump Blocks Critical Tweeters; First Amendment Group Complains

I block people from my Twitter account all the time. But I’m not President of the United States.

Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute sent a letter to Donald Trump yesterday asking him to unblock users whom he appears to have blocked due to criticism. KFAI contends that such social media blockage by an elected official is unconstitutional:

Blocking users from your Twitter account violates the First Amendment. 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. This is true even if the space in question is “metaphysical” rather than physical; even if the space is privately rather than publicly owned; and “even when the limited public forum is one of [the government’s] own creation.” The government may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions in a designated public forum, but it may not exclude people simply because it disagrees with them.

Your @realDonaldTrump account constitutes a designated public forum. It is a forum for expression in which you share information and opinions relating to government policy with the public at large, and in which members of the public can engage you, engage one another, and sometimes elicit responses from you. Your Twitter account is a designated public forum for essentially the same reasons that open city council meetings and school board meetings are [footnotes replaced with links; Knight First Amendment Institute, letter to Donald J. Trump, 2017.06.06].

Donald Trump is using his Twitter account to announce official decisions, policy, and events. As KFAI contends, he cannot exclude from that forum citizens who disagree with his decisions or policies or who criticize him in general any more than Dave Lunzman can ban me from Aberdeen City Council meetings or Kevin Burckhard can ban me from Aberdeen school board meetings just because they are unhappy with my criticism of their lack of openness.

But the analogy is imperfect. Blocking Twitter users does not stop users from reading or writing anything; it only complicates that reading and writing. As I tinker with my account, I find I can still mention users who have blocked me, like SDGOP chair Dan Lederman and his sycophant spin blogger Pat Powers. I can’t directly view or retweet their posts, but all I need to do to view their tweets is open up an incognito browser window. If I really want to retweet a post from a user who has blocked me, I just take a screenshot from the incognito… which is more durable, since the tweeter can delete his post but not my screenshot. The local analogy to Trump’s tweet blocks would be if Councilman-Elect Lunzman didn’t let me sit in the front row of seats at a city council meeting and made me click my heels three times before making any statement during public comment period. A government official blocking users from his official account may be censorship, but it’s an odd and weak form of censorship.

For what it’s worth, I refuse to “Follow” Donald Trump. I do follow the courageous President of France and the kayaking Prime Minister of Canada.

I invite Donald Trump to comment on this blog post. I will still block Steve Sibson from this conversation. Elect me Governor, and I might let Sibby in.


10 Responses to Trump Blocks Critical Tweeters; First Amendment Group Complains

  1. Miranda Gohn

    Cory “Elect me Governor, and I might let Sibby in”

    When will be your official announcement or is this it? This cycle and be a primary challenger to Billie Sutton?

  2. Tyler Schumacher

    I could see this being applicable to the POTUS account, but not to his personal account.

  3. I havent been blocked yet

  4. So nobody can block anybody from their twitter accounts without violating the first amendment? I’m with Tyler. The Columbia people are being a bit overzealous in their advocacy. Just as a property owner can exclude someone from their premises, a twitter user can exclude someone from their twitter account.

    Still I commend Columbia University for fiercely defending the first amendment rights of even those they disagree with and welcoming conservative speakers to lecture on their campus:

    http://college.usatoday.com/2017/03/23/charles-murray-speaks-at-columbia-with-support-of-nearly-150-faculty-members/

  5. Miranda, there are many possibilities.

  6. Tyler and Ror have a point… but is there a distinction between Trump’s “personal” Twitter account and the POTUS account? Is his “personal” account really personal and not an extension of the office of the President now?

  7. The first amendment doesn’t have anything to do with citizens trying to limit what other citizens say or have access to – it is very narrowly applied to “state” action, which means either the federal government or state governments. People can block other people from their accounts because they are citizens and are not subject to the prohibitions the first amendment created. When the “state” acts through its elected or appointed officials in such a way to limit the speech of a citizen, those actions are regulated by the constitution.

    The argument is actually very intriguing that Trump’s account was a “citizen’s” account while he was just a citizen, but now that he uses it as a method for the President to converse with the people, it becomes a “state” account. I’m by no means a constitutional law expert, but I did study it quite thoroughly and I understand the important distinction between private action and state action. It’s not clear enough to be a no-brainer, but I do think there is something to this.

  8. mike from iowa

    All his tweets and every other communication are supposed to be saved and archived for posterity. But then, Drumpf doesn’t follow the rules and there aren’t enough Dems in power to force him to follow the rules. Wingnuts will allow Drumpf to get away with just about everything and blame lawless Obama for it.

  9. Ryan, I wondered about something similar when I ran for Senate last year. Right now, I’m just a private citizen, writing a blog, hosting conversations, and making a little money on ads and the Blog Tip Jar (hint!). My comment section is mine to edit and moderate as I wish. But if my neighbors had elected me Senator, and if I had chosen to use this website to update constituents on Legislative action, would I have a greater obligation to allow open participation in the comment section? Could I moderate anybody’s comments? Could I continue to ban comments from anonymi?

    The comparison is shaky, since, as our legislators like to emphasize, they are part-time lawmakers… but even there, if status as an elected official does create new obligations on elected officials’ social media interactions (like archiving statements for public record), then when would legislators be held to those higher standards? Just during Session? Only on days when they are performing official duties?

    Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, other social media—they are public spaces… but maybe they are better compared to bars and cafés than to school board meetings. Twitter captures (“memorializes” would be Comey’s word) the kinds of conversations that used to only happen at the bar, orally, spoken and then lost in the din. With Twitter, it’s as if the President is dropping by everybody’s local bar and shooting his mouth off. If the President walked into an actual bar, he wouldn’t be under any constitutional obligation to let every patron talk to him… or maybe any patron. If I walked up to the President at the Red Rooster here in town and started chewing him out over his proposed cuts to USDA Rural Development, it would be entirely constitutional for him to turn his back on me and walk away. Now I can make a moral argument that the President’s turning his back on me is more than crappy optics—Hey, buddy, I pay your salary. You work for me, and you’re by gum gonna listen to what I have to say!—and I think we can apply an argument like that the social media accounts of elected officials… but that argument differs from what the Knight folks are offering.

    I don’t think we have a clear answer on this issue yet… which makes it all the more interesting.