President Donald Trump cannot block Twitter critics from his @realDonaldTrump personal account, a federal appeals panel ruled on Tuesday.
The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Mr Trump’s Twitter account is a public forum, and blocking users based on viewpoint violates America’s First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. The decision could set off a possible appeal to the Supreme Court.
“We do conclude, however, that the First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilises a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise‐open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees,” Barrington Parker, who wrote the court’s majority opinion, said. “In resolving this appeal, we remind the litigants and the public that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that the best response to a disfavoured speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less.”
The lawsuit was coordinated by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, and several individuals whom the president blocked were amongst the plaintiffs.
The ruling upheld the decision of U.S. District Court of Southern New York in May 2018. Although the judge, Naomi Buchwald, did not find that the @realDonaldTrump account is itself a public forum, she said each tweet, and the thousands of replies that follow, are a public forum subject to the First Amendment.
The 2nd Circuit affirmed that conclusion, saying: “The account was intentionally opened for public discussion when the president, upon assuming office, repeatedly used the account as an official vehicle for governance and made its interactive features accessible to the public without limitation.”
The United States Department of Justice had argued that Mr Trump’s handle should not fall under First Amendment constraints.
The government’s lawyers also argued that even if Mr Trump’s account establishes a public form, blocking users should not be illegal because they can still access the president’s tweets by other means.
But the judges rejected those arguments, saying even senior White House officials have described the @realDonaldTrump handle as an official account, answered congressional records requests with references to the account, and used the account as a medium through which to communicate major policy decisions like the ban on transgender military personnel.
The judges also said tweets from Mr Trump’s account fall under the Presidential Records Act, which makes them official government activities.