Back when Donald Trump was in the Oval Office and still had his Twitter account, people found all sorts of reasons to try to sue him. One common complaint leading to a lawsuit involved the President’s practice of blocking some of his followers who tweeted critical or unpleasant things in his timeline. This was alleged to be an example of Trump violating people’s First Amendment rights to free speech. A lawsuit based on that idea finally made it to the Supreme Court this week, where it was summarily disposed of. Rather than ruling on the merits of the case, the justices found that there was “nothing left of the case” now that Trump is out of office and permanently banned from Twitter. But one of the justices, while agreeing with the ruling, added some provocative language that may signal trouble for the social media giants in the future. (Associated Press)
The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a case over former President Donald Trump’s efforts to block critics from his personal Twitter account.
The court said there was nothing left to the case after Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter and ended his presidential term in January.
Twitter banned Trump two days after the deadly attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6. The company said its decision was “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”
The court also formally threw out an appeals court ruling that found Trump violated the First Amendment whenever he blocked a critic to silence a viewpoint.
As I mentioned above, the basis for this ruling isn’t unusual. Court cases are regularly dismissed if something happens that essentially nullifies the conditions that led to the suit in the first place. But the more intriguing part of this decision was found in a separate opinion filed by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. Calling out Twitter directly, he suggested that there may be a reckoning coming for social media platforms that squelch free speech in the private sector, saying “the right to cut off speech lies most powerfully in the hands of private digital platforms.” (Washington Times)
Justice Thomas warned that a day of reckoning looms for social media companies.
“As Twitter made clear, the right to cut off speech lies most powerfully in the hands of private digital platforms,” the conservative jurist wrote. “The extent to which that power matters for purposes of the First Amendment and the extent to which that power could lawfully be modified raise interesting and important questions.”
The appointee of President George H.W. Bush said digital platforms provide for “unprecedented amounts of speech,” but control over that speech is concentrated in the hands of private companies.
“We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms,” he wrote.
This is a rather unusual move for a Supreme Court Justice. Generally, SCOTUS opinions are confined to the case being decided. In this instance, Thomas was answering a question that hadn’t even been asked in the lawsuit. In the case of Trump v. Knight First Amendment Institute, nobody was suing Twitter. They were trying to prevent one user (Trump) from blocking the access of other users.
Thomas went much further, suggesting that Congress might need to enact new regulations on the social media giants. He invoked the example of the early days of telegraph systems, noting that they were “bound to serve all customers alike, without discrimination.”
While this opinion doesn’t change any existing laws by itself, this was obviously a verbal shot across the bow of Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social media platforms that have been targeting users over speech that the companies’ owners disagree with and locking them out. Traditionally, only the government has been held accountable for violating the free speech rights of individuals. Hearing Thomas invoking the telegraph example, however, makes it sound as if that trend may be about to change.