Trump Can't Block Twitter Followers, Federal Appeals Court Rules

Jul 9, 2019
Originally published on July 9, 2019 8:08 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A federal appeals court has upheld a ruling that President Trump cannot block critics from his Twitter account. The decision comes at a time when many government officials are using social media platforms to communicate with the public. Here to talk about this case is NPR's Aarti Shahani. Hey there.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: So this comes from an appellate court in New York. Tell us about the case.

SHAHANI: Yes. It was a unanimous decision. All three judges agreed to uphold the lower court ruling. The case started two years ago. A few people joined a lawsuit against the president. They included a doctor, a university professor, a comedian and a police officer. Trump had blocked each of them from his Twitter account after they criticized him. And they said, hey, you can't do that. I've got freedom of speech. Blocking means a user who's logged in can't tweet at the president, read his tweets or join in and respond to other people commenting. Twitter created this feature after people complained about being harassed, say, by bullies or exes. Blocking lets you control who you hear from. Press some buttons and, bam, you create an echo chamber of just your adoring fans.

Trump arguably did a version of that when he blocked his critics. And the problem with that, according to the court, is that the president uses Twitter in his official capacity as a public servant. It doesn't matter that he started his account in 2009 when he was a private citizen. That's not how he uses it anymore. @realDonaldTrump isn't where the president talks about his golf game. It's where he announces major decisions, like firing his chief of staff or banning transgender people in the military. As my esteemed colleague David Folkenflik puts it, the president's Twitter is his mood ring.

SHAPIRO: What has the response to this ruling been from the president or the administration?

SHAHANI: Well, the president has not tweeted about it yet. A Justice Department spokesperson said that the DOJ is disappointed with the court's decision and is exploring next steps. The DOJ reiterated its argument from court that the president's account is not a public forum. Blocking users is private conduct. Now, that argument didn't fly because the administration had said so much to the contrary. As the judges pointed out, Trump's former press secretary, Sean Spicer, called the tweets official statements.

SHAPIRO: So beyond the president, what does this ruling mean for other politicians or public figures who are not elected politicians - I mean, movie stars, for example?

SHAHANI: Well, it really focuses on public officials serving in a public capacity, OK, and that's key. Trump is the most high-profile blocker, but he's by no means the only official public servant doing so. I spoke with Jameel Jaffer. He is the director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. He represented a group that filed the lawsuit against Trump. He also sued a Democrat, a county official in Virginia, for the same kind of behavior. Jaffer said the purpose of suing Trump is to bring the free speech rights that exist in the physical world into digital life.

JAMEEL JAFFER: The whole point of the case was to take this body of law that exists off line - and that applies to spaces like town hall and city council meetings - and ensure that that same body of law would be applied to these new digital spaces that are increasingly important to our democracy.

SHAHANI: And so what he's saying there is that in the real world at a town hall, the president can cover his ears if he doesn't like what someone has to say, but he can't make them shut up. So Jaffer says that's what Trump was effectively doing by blocking his critics on Twitter and the kind of activity he's trying to reverse.

SHAPIRO: OK. So the president or a county official in Virginia can't block people on Twitter. What about when platforms delete accounts? Just briefly, does this ruling apply there?

SHAHANI: Yeah. So the judges were careful to spell out the limits of this ruling. They said it's about public officials working in their official capacity. The judges are not deciding whether the social media companies are bound by the First Amendment. They were clear about that constraint.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Aarti Shahani. Thanks so much.

SHAHANI: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.