WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said Monday it will decide whether public officials can block critics from commenting on their social media accounts, an issue that previously came up in a case involving former President Donald Trump.
Two years ago the Supreme Court dismissed a case over Trump’s efforts to block critics from his personal Twitter account. A lower court had said Trump violated the First Amendment whenever he blocked a critic to silence a viewpoint. But the Supreme Court said the case should be dismissed because there was nothing left to it after Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter and ended his presidential term. The Republican former president's account has since been reinstated.
Now, the court has agreed to hear two cases involving much lower-profile figures. The first involves two elected members of a California school board, the Poway Unified School District Board of Trustees. The members, Michelle O'Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane, used Facebook and Twitter accounts to communicate with the public. Two parents, Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, left critical comments and replies to posts on the board members' accounts and were blocked. An appeals court said the board members had violated their free speech rights by doing so.
The other case involves James Freed, who became the city manager of Port Huron, Michigan, in 2014. Freed, who was appointed to his position by the mayor and City Council, used a Facebook page to communicate with the public. In 2020, a resident, Kevin Lindke, used the page to comment several times from three Facebook profiles, including criticism of the city's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Freed blocked all three accounts and deleted Lindke's comments. Lindke sued, but lower courts sided with Freed.
Katie Fallow, senior counsel at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which was involved in the Trump case, said that more and more public officials are using social media to communicate about official business.
“As many courts have held, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the president or a local city manager, government officials can’t block people from these forums simply because they don’t like what they’re saying," Fallow said in a statement. “The Supreme Court should reaffirm that basic First Amendment principle.”
The Supreme Court will not hear the new cases before the fall. The justices this week are hearing their last scheduled arguments and will issue decisions in May and June before going on a summer break. The court will resume hearing arguments in October.
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