Many reasons can be attributed to President Donald Trump’s shocking 2016 presidential victory; however, one of those reasons could be his massive Twitter following and social media presence. One thing about Trump and social media, however, is if you attack Trump, he can easily block you from his Twitter profile. Several users have taken issue with this and are accusing him in a lawsuit of infringing upon their First Amendment right to free speech. Additionally, Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) is joining that fight.
The lawsuit began in July, after the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sued Trump, former Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and Trump’s social media director, Dan Scavino. The argument they base their lawsuit on is that Twitter serves as a digital public forum. Therefore, Trump is barred from blocking users from expressing their opinion.
Specifically, places that are considered “traditional public forums” are public squares, sidewalks, and parks. Furthermore, public libraries are considered designated public forums. In the filing, the plaintiffs argue:
‘President Trump’s Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, has become an important source of news and information about the government, and an important public forum for speech by, to, and about the President. In an effort to suppress dissent in this forum, Defendants have excluded-“blocked”-Twitter users who have criticized the President or his policies. This practice is unconstitutional, and this suit seeks to end it.’
The filing also noted the Supreme Court found in Packingham v. North Carolina that social media outlets could be “perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard.”
‘Because of the way the President and his aides use the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account, the account is a public forum under the First Amendment. Defendants have made the account accessible to all, taking advantage of Twitter’s interactive platform to directly engage the President’s 33 million followers. The President’s tweets routinely generate tens of thousands of comments in the vibrant discussion forums associated with each of the President’s tweets. Further, Defendants have promoted the President’s Twitter account as a key channel for official communication. Defendants use the account to make formal announcements, defend the President’s official actions, report on meetings with foreign leaders, and promote the administration’s positions on health care, immigration, foreign affairs, and other matters. The President’s advisors have stated that tweets from @realDonaldTrump are “official statements,” and they have been treated as such by politicians, world leaders, the National Archive and Records Administration, and federal courts.’
A perfect example of Trump’s official usage of Twitter is the day he announced he would be banning transgender individuals in the military.
That was back in July. In November, however, Georgetown Law’s ICAP filed an amicus brief. An amicus brief, also called a “friend of the court” brief, is filed by someone not part of the original case but wants to provide additional information they feel may benefit the court. According to the Public Health Law Center, they “can have a significant impact on judicial decision-making.”
In the amicus brief, they describe the credentials of those filing it:
‘These amici have taught courses in constitutional law or the First Amendment, have published articles and books on these topics, and have dedicated significant attention to the study of First Amendment freedoms.’
They described Trump’s blocking of users on Twitter as a threat to “critical First Amendment values.”
However, ICAP then noted something downright frightening. In the brief, they compared Trump’s behavior online to that of a dictator.
‘Such practices are a familiar playbook for authoritarian regimes. For them, cultivating a false impression that political leaders are adored by the public is critical to warping the public’s understanding of how those leaders are really viewed by the public and, in turn, to quashing democratic impulses.’
The argument that Trump blocking users is an infringement of their freedom of speech may seem like a reach. However, when reading the arguments from the original filing and the friend of the court brief, the arguments and justification are beyond reasonable. If Trump did not use Twitter as a way of making official announcements, maybe there would be room for argument. However, the way his own Twitter profile has become the official Twitter profile of the president negates the private ownership of the profile.
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