The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of seven individuals who have been blocked on Twitter by President Trump. From the LA Times:
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, names Trump, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and White House director of social media Dan Scavino as defendants. The Knight Institute sent a letter to the White House last month threatening legal action if it didn’t heed its call to unblock followers.
“President Trump’s Twitter account has become an important source of news and information about the government, and an important forum for speech by, to, or about the president,” Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s executive director, said in the letter. “The First Amendment applies to this digital forum in the same way it applies to town halls and open school board meetings. The White House acts unlawfully when it excludes people from this forum simply because they’ve disagreed with the president.”
The seven individuals involved in the lawsuit are not the only people blocked by Trump but they all have in common that they dislike Trump and, at some point, tweeted a response that offended him. For instance, the NY Times reports one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit works at the Center for American Progress and responded to a tweet about fake news:
Rebecca Buckwalter, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, whose account was blocked after she responded to a tweet by Mr. Trump on June 6 in which he disparaged the “fake news” media and said he would not have won the election if he relied on it.
She replied, “To be fair you didn’t win the WH: Russia won it for you” — and she was blocked by Mr. Trump’s account.
Other plaintiffs include a university professor from Maryland and a march organizer who wrote about being blocked by Trump for the Washington Post last month.
After the election, I programmed my phone to alert me whenever Trump tweeted. If his tweet was particularly inane, I would reply with my own equally dumb remarks and memes. Since I started doing this, I’ve accumulated a very vocal group of Twitter followers who cheer me on when I troll the president. It takes about five minutes out of my day, and it makes me feel better knowing that this narcissistic, egomaniacal, misogynistic, xenophobic POTUS can read how I feel about him.
So, yeah, it’s basically Trump trolls. That said, there is disagreement over whether or not this case has a chance. Lawfare published a piece arguing that blocking individuals based on their viewpoints may cross a First Amendment line:
Notably, as the blocking–notice above indicates, the blocked party is not only barred from speaking on [email protected] comment forum, but is also barred from viewing the tweets posted by the President. That is remarkable. The President cannot issue public official statements as the Chief Executive, and then seek to bar those who disagree with him from even accessing them. A city could not restrict access to its library based on a person’s political party affiliation, viewpoint, or religion. Likewise, the President cannot try to block access to his official Presidential statements on Twitter, by blocking citizen based on their viewpoints or political leanings.
But a professor of constitutional law at Harvard disagreed with this, stating that Twitter has the right to create rules on its own forum:
There’s no right to free speech on Twitter. The only rule is that Twitter Inc. gets to decide who speaks and listens — which is its right under the First Amendment. If Twitter wants to block Trump, it can. If Trump wants to block followers, he can…
In a designated public forum, the government can’t discriminate on the basis of viewpoint. But in no case of which I am aware has the designated public forum been a privately owned and controlled space like Twitter.
Indeed, if a lawsuit were brought against Twitter to force Trump to unblock followers, Twitter would be able to argue successfully that its free speech rights allow it to institute any rules it wants.
Since I’m not an attorney I won’t hazard a guess which one of these arguments will win. I will say that I really see no point in blocking a few trolls on Twitter when there are literally tens of thousands more competing to make a name for themselves with the best response to every Trump tweet. It’s like using a squirt gun to put out a house fire. And generally speaking, it’s better not to give online trolls the satisfaction of knowing they got your attention. It only encourages them.