I’ve talked about free speech often in the past. I even said, quite recently and quite angrily, that getting blocked on social media is not a violation of your free speech.
However… it would appear that some Twitter users have found an exception… and I’m not sure I can think up an argument against this…
President Donald Trump may be the nation’s tweeter-in-chief, but some Twitter users say he’s violating the First Amendment by blocking people from his feed after they posted scornful comments.
Lawyers for two Twitter users sent the White House a letter Tuesday demanding they be un-blocked from the Republican president’s @realDonaldTrump account.
“The viewpoint-based blocking of our clients is unconstitutional,” wrote attorneys at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University in New York.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Now, on the face of it, I would maintain my position that being blocked on social media is not a violation of your free speech. But what if it’s the president of the United States who blocked you?
Although Trump started @realDonaldTrump as a private citizen and Twitter isn’t government-run, the Knight institute lawyers argue that he’s made it a government-designated public forum by using it to discuss policies and engage with citizens. Indeed, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that Trump’s tweets are “considered official statements by the president.”
The institute’s executive director, Jameel Jaffer, compares Trump’s Twitter account to a politician renting a privately-owned hall and inviting the public to a meeting.
“The crucial question is whether a government official has opened up some space, whether public or private, for expressive activity, and there’s no question that Trump has done that here,” Jaffer said. “The consequence of that is that he can’t exclude people based solely on his disagreement with them.”
So here’s where I probably end up maintaining my original stance… just because Agent Orange blocked you doesn’t mean you can’t continue to tweet your criticism, or put it on Facebook, or write a letter to the White House, or leave them a voicemail, and so on. So, honestly, you’re free speech technically still hasn’t been violated.
“This is an emerging issue,” says Helen Norton, a University of Colorado Law School professor who specializes in First Amendment law.
Morgan Weiland, an affiliate scholar with Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, says the blocked tweeters’ complaint could air key questions if it ends up in court. Does the public forum concept apply in privately run social media? Does it matter if an account is a politician’s personal account, not an official one?
And I really hate to do the snowball analogy here, but let’s say these tweeters win they probably won’t)… what next? I could see that potentially becoming sticky precedent for future cases where government employees aren’t involved. Hell… imagine a dystopian future where blocking is illegal?
But that said, I again have to go to the platform thing… you are only guaranteed protection from the government; they can’t come in and make you disappear just for criticizing them. But you’re not guaranteed a platform. Plus, getting blocked by someone on social media isn’t getting you kicked off of social media… unless you’re somehow blocked by the vast majority of people on social media… you must be a pretty terrible person at that point, but you probably deserved it, too.
And you’re free speech still isn’t being violated.
But what if it’s the president?
Well… I would say that they have the right to curate their social media feed as much as the rest of us do, but we’ll see. I’m torn between a logical look at the law and continued desire to see Agent Orange shamed and embarrassed…