Earlier today, U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the Southern District of New York became the latest federal judge to weigh in on the relationship between the First Amendment and government social media. In a lengthy 75-page opinion, the Court ruled that President Donald Trump’s personal Twitter account (@realDonaldTrump) was a designated public forum, and that that President Trump had violated certain users’ First Amendment rights by blocking them from the page.
Before reaching the merits, the Court first addressed the issue of standing, as the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), appearing for the President, strongly objected to the Court’s adjudication of the case. The Court ultimately ruled that the Plaintiffs, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and seven users who had been blocked from President Trump’s Twitter, had stated a cognizable injury and therefore had standing to bring a claim against President Trump and Director of Social Media Daniel Scavino. However, the Court did find that Plaintiffs lacked standing against the other defendants, including Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Communications Director Hope Hicks.
Turning to the merits, the Court found that the President’s Twitter was a designated public forum in which viewpoint discrimination is constitutionally prohibited. As such, the President violated users First Amendment rights by blocking them for expressing political viewpoints that were contrary or critical of the President’s position. The Court’s decision rejected arguments by the DOJ that the blocked users First Amendment rights were not violated because they could still read the President’s feed, noting that the users were prevented from engaging in discussion threads. The Court also rejected the contention that the President own First Amendment interests superseded the rights of those users.
Finally, the Court turned to the issue of the appropriate relief. While rejecting the DOJ’s view that the Court was categorically prohibited from awarding injunctive relief against the President, the Court nonetheless declined to grant such relief. Instead, the Court issued a declaratory judgment, on the basis that “no government official -- including the President -- is above the law, and all government officials are presumed to follow the law as has been declared.”
The case was Knights First Amendment Institute of Columbia University v. Trump, 17-cv-5205 (May 23, 2018). As this was a lengthy and detailed opinion, this blog may do follow-up posts on specific legal issues therein. The full decision can be found here.