The Media Today

Trump Twitter ruling has implications for all government officials

May 24, 2018

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that President Trump’s practice of blocking critical voices on Twitter violates the First Amendment. Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York sided with the argument made by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University that the president’s Twitter feed constitutes a “designated public forum,” and that Trump therefore can’t block users based on their political views.

The ruling—in a case brought by seven Twitter users who had been blocked by the @realDonaldTrump account, and who were joined by the Knight Institute—extends to all public officials, meaning that it has the potential to impact the communications of everyone from local representatives to US Senators. The plaintiffs argued that Trump’s twitter feed amounted to a virtual town hall, and that blocking users from seeing his tweets violated their First Amendment rights.

Judge Buchwald disagreed with the government’s argument that Trump’s own First Amendment rights allowed him to speak with whomever he chose, writing, “the viewpoint-based exclusion of the individual plaintiffs from that designated public forum is proscribed by the First Amendment and cannot be justified by the President’s personal First Amendment interests.”

In a statement following the ruling, Katie Fallow, senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, said, “The First Amendment prohibits government officials from suppressing speech on the basis of viewpoint. The court’s application of that principle here should guide all of the public officials who are communicating with their constituents through social media.”

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Elected officials across the US increasingly use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to communicate with constituents. This case is one of the first to tackle the thorny issues raised by the new technology, and Judge Buchwald’s ruling applies to all public officials who use their accounts to disseminate information relevant to the public interest. She stopped short of issuing an injunction demanding that the president and his social media director, Dan Scavino, immediately unblock the plaintiffs, but in ruling the practice unconstitutional left it up to the White House to comply.

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Such relief for those blocked by Trump may not be coming immediately. In a statement after the ruling, DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said, “We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision and are considering our next steps.”

Below, more on Trump, Twitter, and the new age of political communication.

  • Beyond Trump: Noting that “public officials throughout the country, from local politicians to governors and members of Congress, regularly use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to interact with the public about government business,” The New York Times’s John Herrman and Charlie Savage write that the ruling “is likely to have implications far beyond Mr. Trump’s feed and its 52 million followers.”
  • Limited ruling: The Washington Post’s Brian Fung analyzes the implications of Judge Buchwald’s ruling, noting the limited scope of her decision. “The ruling pointedly does not rule on Twitter as a whole, nor even the entirety of Trump’s Twitter account,” Fung writes. “Under Buchwald’s ruling, Twitter remains free to block users from its platform, on its own terms, without running afoul of the First Amendment.”
  • Dissenting view: National Review’s David French argues against the ruling, writing that because “Donald Trump’s Twitter feed isn’t a government-controlled forum,” the First Amendment protections for public forums shouldn’t apply.
  • Inside the courtroom: Earlier this spring, CJR’s Jon Allsop took readers inside the debate, writing from the scene of Judge Buchwald’s lower Manhattan courtroom. “Neither the First Amendment nor Donald Trump are strangers to the courtrooms of New York’s southern judicial district,” Allsop wrote, noting that “Judge Buchwald looked less than pleased to be told she didn’t have authority over Trump’s Twitter.”


Other notable stories

  • The New York Times Magazine’s Mark Leibovich has a must-read on the risky business of speaking for President Trump. Focusing on Hogan Gudley, one of the White House press operation’s lesser known figures, Leibovich examines what it’s like to speak for a president who often seems unconcerned with the truth, and what cost the association with Trump will have on his aides’ future job prospects.
  • The Associated Press’s Mary Clare Jalonick and Jonathan Lemire report that President Trump’s use of the term “spygate” to describe his latest attempt to discredit Robert Mueller’s investigation is part of “a newly invigorated strategy embraced by his Republican colleagues to raise suspicions about the probe that has dogged his presidency since the start.”
  • I got a sneak peek at the new Showtime documentary, The Fourth Estate, which tells the story of The New York Times in the Trump era. Watching the robust cast of journalists chasing the biggest story of their lifetimes, I was struck by how far the paper has come since the gloomy outlook of 2011’s Page One.
  • Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reports that Time Inc. “refugees” Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and Money “have reason to be optimistic.” Pompeo’s sources tell him that roughly 80 potential buyers have expressed interest in the titles, with some bids for individual titles topping $200 million.
  • The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan has a blistering column on the legacy of Roger Ailes. Pegged to the announcement that Charlize Theron will be playing Megyn Kelly in an upcoming biopic on Ailes’s life, Sullivan writes that “Ailes fostered hate, abused women and helped give us a divisive president. If all goes well, Hollywood will immortalize him as an evildoer who got his comeuppance.”

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.