Knight Institute Warns Rep. Ocasio-Cortez That She, Like Trump, Can't Block People On Twitter

from the as-noted dept

Earlier this summer, we wrote about the 2nd Circuit appeals court affirming a district court ruling against Donald Trump, saying that it's a 1st Amendment violation for him to block followers on Twitter. The reasoning in the decisions was a bit nuanced, but the short version is that (1) if you're a public official, and (2) using social media (3) for official purposes (4) to create a space of open dialogue, then you cannot block people from following you based on the views they express. The four conditions do need to be met -- and the lower court at least noted that such public officials can still "mute" people. That is, the officials don't need to listen -- but they cannot limit access to the narrow public space that is created in response to their official social media posts.

Right after that ruling came down, we pointed out that someone had already sued Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for blocking people on Twitter as well, and our analysis was that she certainly seemed to be violating the 1st Amendment in the same way as Trump was. Now, the Knight 1st Amendment Institute, which filed the initial lawsuit against Trump, has sent a letter to Ocasio-Cortez making the same point. This is interesting, because when the original lawsuit against AOC was filed, and the media requested comment from the Knight Institute, there was at least some hesitation, saying that they needed to look at all of the details. Now that the details have been explored, it appears that the Knight Institute has come to the same conclusion.

As the letter makes clear, the @AOC account meets all the criteria that the court required to say that blocking is not allowed. Apparently Ocasio-Cortez is trying to argue that the @AOC account is a personal account, and she had another more official account. But, as the Knight letter explains, that's not at all accurate:

Based on the facts as we understand them, the @AOC account is a “public forum” within the meaning of the First Amendment. You use the account as an extension of your office—to share information about congressional hearings, to explain policy proposals, to advocate legislation, and to solicit public comment about issues relating to government. Recently, for example, you used the account to discuss new “policy approaches we should consider wrt immigration,” and to ask the public, “[w]hat commissions would you want to see Congress establish?” The account is a digital forum in which you share your thoughts and decisions as a member of Congress, and in which members of the public directly engage with you and with one another about matters of public policy. Since you first took office, the number of users following the @AOC account has reached more than 5.2 million. Many of your tweets staking out positions on issues such as immigration, the environment, and impeachment have made headline news. The @AOC account is important to you as a legislator, to your constituents, and to others who seek to understand and influence your legislative decisions and priorities.

Multiple courts have held that public officials’ social media accounts constitute public forums when they are used in the way that you use the @AOC account, and they have made clear that public officials violate the First Amendment when they block users from these forums on the basis of viewpoint. Most relevant here, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently concluded that President Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking users from his Twitter account, @real- DonaldTrump, because “he disagree[d] with their speech.” In another recent case, the Fourth Circuit held that the chairperson of a local county board violated the First Amendment by blocking an individual from her Facebook page.

In pending litigation, your attorneys have argued that the @AOC account is not subject to the First Amendment because it is a personal account. As we have explained above, that characterization is incorrect. Further, while we understand that you have another account that is nominally your “official” one, the fact remains that you use the @AOC account as an extension of your office. Notably, the Second Circuit rejected President Trump’s argument that his account is a personal one even though he has other accounts—@POTUS and @WhiteHouse—that are nominally official. The Court wrote, “the First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees.”

So far, AOC responded to this by saying that she's only blocking 20 accounts and that she's blocking them for "harassment," rather than viewpoint discrimination.

But, again, as the lower court said in the Trump case, the remedy there should be "muting," not blocking. I get that being a public figure on Twitter is not always fun -- and especially for polarizing political figures (which both Trump and Ocasio-Cortez undoubtedly are). And I get that it must suck to have assholes clog up your feed. I'm barely known and, while I use Twitter's block button sparingly, I have found it useful at times. But I'm not a publicly elected official using my account for official business as an elected politician. The fact that one of the accounts AOC is blocking is a media outlet, even one as ridiculous as The Daily Caller, only highlights the 1st Amendment concerns here.

I've seen some people supporting the case against Trump, but not supporting it against AOC (and I've also seen the reverse). In most cases, though, those opinions seem to be driven mainly by whether or not one feels politically aligned with one or the other politician. And, while I have seen some good faith arguments that "harassment" should be considered something different, there is a very slippery slope there. Put that into Trump's hands and he'll just as quickly claim that everyone who is criticizing him is "harassing" him as well. We have a 1st Amendment for a reason, and politicians on both sides of the traditional aisle should respect that.

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Filed Under: 1st amendment, alexandria ocasio-cortez, donald trump, free speech, harassment, public officials, public spaces
Companies: knight institute


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  1. icon
    Leigh Beadon (profile), 3 Sep 2019 @ 7:25pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    And the first amendment protects all of those ways - as well as your right to petition other legislators, even if they are not your representatives.

    I am just not seeing (a) why anyone thinks this is not the case legally and (b) why anyone thinks it would be a good idea to change it.

    If a congressperson you dislike proposes national legislation that you oppose, but they are not your representative, are you saying you would have no first amendment right to protest or petition them?


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