By Alyssa Kapasi
On Wednesday, May 23, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York Naomi Reice Buchwald issued a ruling in the case of Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, Rebecca Buckwalter, Philip Cohen, Holly Figueroa, Eugene Gu, Brandon Neely, Joseph Papp, and Nicholas Pappas v. Donald J. Trump and Daniel Scavino. She “considered 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.” and determined that the answer to both questions is no.
The plaintiffs were The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and a group of individuals who were blocked by President Donald Trump’s @realDonaldTrump twitter account for criticizing his actions. Judge Buchwald determined that President Trump’s blocking critics on Twitter is unconstitutional because the “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, 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.”
According to David Folkenflik at NPR, former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders were originally listed as defendants but were removed when Ms. Hicks left the White House and when Judge Buchwald determined that Ms. Sanders did not contribute to the free speech violations. President Trump and White House Director of Social Media Scavino argued that President Trump only used his twitter account for personal matters, but Judge Buchwald rejected this notion because President Trump“uses the account to take actions that can be taken only by the president as president.”
Despite ruling that it is unconstitutional for the President to block twitter users, Judge Buchwald did not order an injunction forcing the President to comply with her ruling. New York Times Reporters John Herrman and Charlie Savage speculate that this was done as a show of respect to the separation-of-powers between the judicial and executive branch and the complications that could arise from a Judge ordering the President to complete an action. In fact, Judge Buchwald seemingly offered an alternative solution to the case in a March hearing where she suggested that President Trump had the right to ignore individuals on Twitter using the mute feature.
This case has far reaching implications for politicians and social media platforms as the use of social media has become an increasingly accessible and easy way to communicate with constituents. Herrman and Savage detail how “In April, Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland settled a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and several other plaintiffs who accused him of censorship on government-operated Facebook pages. A similar federal lawsuit filed against Gov. Paul R. LePage of Maine is awaiting a ruling.” The case has already sparked politicians such as Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop to change their twitter habits. Fulop summarised the implication of the ruling by stating: “I may not like u personally but the law is the law”.
At the time of this piece President Trump has not unblocked anyone.