President’s Twitter Account Constitutes Public Forum
District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled yesterday in a 75-page decision that the president’s Twitter feed constitutes a public forum and that the president’s decision to block users was unconstitutional.
The decision was made in a New York district court in a case brought forth by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University which represented seven plaintiffs who have been blocked by the president on the social media platform.
Buchwald decided that the president’s Twitter feed counts as a public forum, and that by blocking individual users, the president was violating their first amendment rights to participate in that public forum.
“We hold that portions of the @realDonaldTrump account — the ‘interactive space’ where Twitter users may directly engage with the content of the President’s tweets — are properly analyzed under the “‘public forum’ doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court, that such space is a designated public forum, and that the blocking of the plaintiffs based on their political speech constitutes viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment.” — Buchwald
Because the current administration has touted the president’s Twitter account as being an official political channel, Buchwald was able to use that against the administration to prove her case.
“The president presents the @realDonaldTrump account as being a presidential account as opposed to a personal account and, more importantly, uses the account to take actions that can be taken only by the president as president.”
Unfortunately, Buchwald’s ruling is a “declaratory relief,” which means that she’s basically just clarifying the law and how it should affect the president’s behavior and decisions.
If she had issued an injunction, she could have legally barred the president from blocking users he disagrees with, but that would have triggered a showdown between the executive and judiciary branches of the federal government, so Buchwald is counting on the integrity of the administration to correct the president’s behavior.
“Because no government official is above the law and because all government officials are presumed to follow the law once the judiciary has said what the law is, we must assume that the president and [digital director Dan] Scavino will remedy the blocking we have held to be unconstitutional.” — Buchwald
Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight Institute, said that the group would take additional legal action if the president continues to block Twitter users.
One of the plaintiffs, Dan Ozzi, argues that the president’s Twitter account is equivalent to an official government mouthpiece, and that such a status warrants unrestricted public access.
“When the account serves as the official mouthpiece of a democratically elected national leader, then I as a citizen have a right to read whatever diarrhea is pouring out of said mouthpiece.” — Ozzi
He went on to tell The Guardian that being blocked from the president’s Twitter account had forced him into a position of ignorance regarding the administration’s decisions.
“I’ve missed a lot of national news updates because I’m blocked. Sometimes I will see dozens of people RTing an unavailable tweet and saying, ‘This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever read.’ And I’m like, ‘Ah jeez I wonder what that’s all about.’ The guy literally provokes international leaders with his Twitter account and I’m out of the loop on it.”
A piece written by Noah Feldman for Bloomberg argues that the decision sets us up for a “logical-legal anomaly” since the government itself doesn’t control the social media platform that hosts the president’s “public forum” — only Twitter, Inc. has control over that virtual space.
Feldman argues that, “Users who are blocked altogether from Twitter are going to start suing the company on the ground that they are being excluded from what the court has deemed the “designated public forum” associated with Trump’s account.”
This, he says, is where the anomaly begins, because if the plaintiffs lose, then that means that there is a public forum, but that some people can’t access it, which makes no sense from a legal perspective.
On the other hand, if they win, then Twitter as a company will lose their freedom of speech and freedom of association by losing the right to block users it doesn’t want, like, or agree with.
It’s a tricky situation, to be sure, and Iron Triangle Press will continue to follow it as it unfolds.