Public Officials Can’t Block Critics From Official Social Media Accounts

You may have read that courts ruled that Trump, using a Twitter account for official, open government purposes, cannot block people based on the views they express. This applies to all public officials, not just Trump. It’s a first amendment issue.

Members of the Selectboard and elected Representative Town Meeting reps should take notice and proceed with caution.

The court ruled that

“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.”

If a public official announces, describes or defends their policies, promotes their legislative agenda, or announces official decisions using a social media account, the account may be considered “official” and considered public and non-private. If so, critics must be allowed.

All accounts are not alike, of course.  An account that doesn’t engage the public in official matters is not the same as one is used for government business. (If I am elected, I can have an account that doesn’t talk about town business that I use for non-official purposes, and I can block anyone from that account for any reason.)

The court wrote:

“Of course, not every social media account operated by a public official is a government account. Whether First Amendment concerns are triggered when a public official uses his account in ways that differ from those presented on this appeal will in most instances be a fact-specific inquiry. The outcome of that inquiry will be informed by how the official describes and uses the account; to whom features of the account are made available; and how others, including government officials and agencies, regard and treat the account.” (My emphasis)

If the account is used in an official capacity, however, public officials can’t censor selected users or block critics in public forums because those users express views with which they disagree.  The court notes that public officials aren’t required to listen to the critics, but they can’t block them.

The conclusion to the ruling is well put:

“The irony in all of this is that we write at a time in the history of this nation when the conduct of our government and its officials is subject to wide-open, robust debate. This debate encompasses an extraordinarily broad range of ideas and viewpoints and generates a level of passion and intensity the likes have rarely been seen. This debate, as uncomfortable and as unpleasant as it frequently may be, is nonetheless a good thing. 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 a disfavored speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less.” (My emphasis)

The Knight Foundation brought the lawsuit. “With public officials across the country increasingly using social media to communicate with and foster debate among their constituents, today’s decision should make them think twice before hitting the block button when they don’t like what someone has posted,” said Katie Fallow, Senior Staff Attorney at the Knight Institute. “It’s unconstitutional and undemocratic.”

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