It’s official: the troll-in-chief can’t block his citizens on Twitter.
Last Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald issued a modern interpretation of the first amendment that declared President Donald Trump, the so-called free speech candidate, can no longer block critics on his favourite social media site because it violates the constitutional rights of the American public, according to her official statement on the ruling.
“This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, “block” a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed, and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States,” Judge Buchwald’s statement begins. “The answer to both questions is no.”
Her reasoning was that Trump, under the personal moniker of @realDonaldTrump, has been using his social media account as a “limited public forum”, akin to “the modern public square” if we’re to quote Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, all the while he maintains the highest office in the land under the taxpayer’s dime. Trump has used his account to address North Korean policy, demand outright bans on transgender military service, as well as announcing those no longer within his ranks, like when the former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired by tweet.
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
The case was filed by Columbia University’s The Knight First Amendment Institute, the free speech coalition which argued that the president violated the rights of his critics and trolls based within the United States.
“We are extremely pleased that the judge held that the president’s blocking of critics from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account violates the First Amendment,” Katie Fallow, a senior staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute who argued the case, said.
Defendants listed alongside Trump include Hope Hicks, former Communications Director for the administration, Dan Scavino, White House Director of Social Media and personal assistant to the president, as well as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who the judge noted has no access to the president’s account where the offense was committed.
“We hold that portions of the @realDonaldTrump account — the ‘interactive space’ where Twitter users may directly engage with the content of the President’s tweets — are properly analyzed under the ‘public forum’ doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court,” she continued in her 75-page decision, far above 140 characters. “That such space is a designated public forum, and that the blocking of the plaintiffs based on their political speech constitutes viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment. No government official — including the President — is above the law.”
But can this law lead to unintended consequences? The judge claims the president could walk around this issue with a simple “mute” rather than blocking users, but wouldn’t this in effect null ways the people can contact their highest representative? Furthermore, wouldn’t Twitter be held responsible for all the American accounts they’ve managed to suppress on this legally declared “public forum”?
“Because of these principles, we do not actively monitor and will not censor user content…” Twitter’s 568-word terms of service once read, at least during the 2009 years when CEO Jack Dorsey cared about the principle of free speech. However, that was then, and this is now. Sweeping changes to the platform, as we’ve reported on TrigTent, have dictated the so-called neutral public forum can ban people from its platform, for any reason, whenever it wants, even for questionable conduct outside the platform and its rules.
Considering these circumstances, where access to Trump’s account is a constitutional right, wouldn’t a public figure the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos, the Florida-based libertarian journalist who was notoriously blocked from Twitter, make the case that he can’t view essential material from his beloved President Trump? This could be extended to other problematic accounts, including figures from the alt-right and neo-nazi movements, who were recently de-verified and removed under Twitter’s new policies. What gives Twitter the right to block these people from their public officials than the president who just lost his case? Perhaps there isn’t one given this important legal precedent.
Under Section 230 of 1996’s Communications Decency Act, tech platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are protected from being held accountable for the content on their sites because they’re a “neutral forum”, something their executives have used as a defense in the past.
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Buchwald’s problem stems from applying old laws to modern times. The principles hold weight, but it’s bound to get lost in adaptation if we’re to put the founding fathers’ perception of the public square in context.
Alternatively, this confusion could be prevented if we’re to take the approach of Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) who recently proposed the establishment of an internet bill of rights — which could force the government to spell out the rights and privileges between individuals and private companies. Twitter users should celebrate their free speech victory, but it doesn’t just stop at the autistic libertarian view that only the government is a threat. There must be answers for what constitutes violence, threats, harassment, abuse and that ever-changing term “hate speech” used to mask the company’s editorializing nature. Standards must be established — whether it be big government or big technology.
Can government-linked accounts just block out their critics? Currently, no.
So why is this power justified when it’s from private market monopolies?
Is this free speech issue bigger than some angry tweets at 3 in the morning? And could it throw the unethical behavior of the Twitter corporation into serious questioning? These are are all questions free speech advocates everywhere would like to know.