Are you one of the many people that the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, has blocked on Twitter from his personal Twitter account, @realdonaldtrump? You’re in luck! United States District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, a federal judge based in New York, ruled that being blocked by Trump is unconstitutional on the basis of violating the First Amendment.
Trump blocked co-plaintiff Holly Figueroa O’Reilly last year after she tweeted a gif of Pope Francis glancing at Trump with (what seems) like a disapproving expression. Columbia University’s first amendment organization, the Knight Institute, decided to take up O’Reilly’s case, arguing that Trump was violating her First Amendment rights by doing so—even if it’s from his personal account.
There’s legal precedent for deeming blocks from official government social media accounts to be unconstitutional. But President Trump maintains two accounts: his official one, @POTUS, and his personal, @realDonaldTrump. Today’s ruling determined that @realDonaldTrump is a de facto government Twitter account, making it subject to scrutiny under the First Amendment.
“We hold that 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,” the court decision reads, “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.”
Per the court decision, Trump is legally obligated to immediately unblock anyone that he’s blocked, even on his personal account, as soon as possible. In a phone call with The Outline, O’Reilly said that if Trump fails to do so, she will file an injunction challenging Trump with the Knight Institute.
O’Reilly told The Outline that she wasn’t particularly surprised by the court’s decision today, since District Judge Buchwald had already pointed out that Trump can simply mute people on Twitter rather than blocking them.
“[Buchwald] said that [muting] takes care of his deal. He doesn’t want to particularly hear people dissent—which is his right on a personal level, but not politically,” O’Reilly said.
O’Reilly also wrote for the Washington Post that Trump tweets about policy from his account, so by blocking people like her, he attempts to restrict political information to people who agree with him.
When Trump blocks people for disagreeing with him, he isn’t just deciding not to hear our voices; he’s cutting us off from receiving these official statements,” she said. “He has closed the door of the virtual town hall meeting to everyone except people who agree with or say nice things about him.”
The Department of Justice has characterized Trump’s tweets as public statements. It’s a concept that can seem ridiculous at times, considering the type of content we’ve come to expect from Trump’s Twitter. Just scroll through @RealPressSecBot, which converts Trump’s tweets into the format and type face of “official” White House statements:
A statement by the President: pic.twitter.com/nH4rREjSrJ— Real Press Sec. (@RealPressSecBot) May 23, 2018
Similar scrutiny of government social media accounts is also happening on a local level. The Knight Institute also sued a local Virginia government after representative Phyllis Randall blocked a consistent, Brian Davison, on Facebook. The state of Virginia ruled that Facebook was a “public forum,” or commons. Therefore, by blocking Davison from this commons, Randall had technically violated the First Amendment by restricting him from relevant information available to the rest of the public.
“If the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence makes anything clear, it is that speech may not be disfavored by the government simply because it offends,” the ruling stated.
O’Reilly told The Outline she believes the ruling will set a legal precedent to prevent government officials from blocking constituents on social media who disagree with them.
“Elected officials should not be able to block a constituents on any social media,” O’Reilly said. “I’m just saying I don’t like [Trump], and I don’t like his decisions, and I think he’s an idiot. I should be able to say that, because we still live in a nation of laws.”