Sohn: Court says Trump's Twitter blocks violate the Constitution

Sohn: Court says Trump's Twitter blocks violate the Constitution

July 10th, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

President Donald Trump, shown in June on the South Lawn of the White House, has violated the First Amendment of the Constitution by blocking Twitter users critical of him and his actions, according to a federal appeals court ruling Tuesday.(AP File Photo/Alex Brandon)

Photo by Alex Brandon

President Trump cannot have it both ways.

He cannot use Twitter as a government form of policy making or communications with the public one moment, and in the next claim it's his domain and block members of the Twitter public who are critical of him.

A three-judge federal appeals panel of the Second Circuit (two appointed by President George W. Bush and one appointed by President Barack Obama) ruled unanimously Tuesday to uphold a 2018 lower court ruling that Trump violated the First Amendment when he blocked Twitter users who were critical of him as president or of his policies. The case has implications for how elected officials nationwide interact with their constituents on social media.

In that first ruling, Judge Naomi Buchwald (appointed by President Bill Clinton) wrote that "No government official — including the President — is above the law."

We keep hearing that, but then Trump keeps acting above the law. Judges rule against him, and he may make a slight change, yet the flavor of his stubborn disdain for law, the Constitution and American tradition stays the same.

In this week's ruling, Judge Barrington D. Parker (one of the Bush appointees) wrote that public officials who take to social media for official government business are prohibited from excluding people "from an otherwise open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees."

Parker continued: "In resolving this appeal, we remind the litigants and the public that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that the best response to disfavored speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less.""

Justice Department lawyers defending the president said in court that @realDonaldTrump is a personal account on a privately owned digital platform and that Trump may block followers he "does not wish to hear." The president's lawyers drew parallels to the physical properties Trump and other presidents owned before taking office. A president's residence — or social media account — does not become government property when the president conducts government business there.

But attorneys from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, representing the blocked users, said Trump routinely uses his Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, to announce government nominations, defend his polices and promote his legislative agenda. Last week he used it to announce (to his nearly 62 million followers) that the government would still seek to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, reversing what his administration officials had told a different court.

"Public officials' social media accounts are now among the most significant forums for discussion of government policy," said Knight Institute Executive Director Jameel Jaffer in a statement. Jaffer likened the comment sections on those social media platforms to traditional town hall meetings, and he said citizens must be allowed to respond directly to government officials and engage in public policy debates.

The trouble, of course, is that Trump' and too many other elected officials, don't understand the real meaning of free speech. They only want to hear their own voices — or praise of their own voices.

That seems especially true of Trump, who has no problem jabbing others and disagreeing with them in his posts, routinely generating tens of thousands of replies and online debates. Some of those replies prompted Trump to block those specific users — like Rebecca Buckwalter, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, who responded to one of his routine "fake news" accusations.

"To be fair you didn't win the WH: Russia won it for you," she wrote. Then she was blocked by Trump's account.

"This decision will ensure that people aren't excluded from these forums simply because of their viewpoints," Jaffer said. "It will help ensure the integrity and vitality of digital spaces that are increasingly important to our democracy."

We're a bit more pessimistic. It will ensure the integrity and vitality of things increasingly important to our democracy until the next time Trump and his administration tramples our Constitution.

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