Should politicians be able to block people on social media? | The Tylt
A federal court has ruled politicians can't block constituents from their public social media profiles. Phyllis J. Randall, an elected official in Virginia, blocked a constituent from her public Facebook page after he posted an incendiary comment on one of her posts. The court ruled Randall denied the man his First Amendment right to free speech. Politicians claim they should be able to control who posts on their social media feeds, as the sites are privately owned. What do you think?
Should politicians be able to block people on social media?
The Washington Post explains the court's ruling:
The trial court’s ruling is consistent with long-standing Supreme Court precedent holding that, while government officials are under no obligation to create speech forums of any kind, once they do, “viewpoint-based discrimination” becomes unlawful. The classic public forum is a public park or street corner, but in a 1985 case called Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., the Supreme Court explained that its precedents demonstrate that the government can create many others: “In addition to traditional public forums, a public forum may be created by government designation of a place or channel of communication for use by the public at large for assembly and speech, for use by certain speakers, or for the discussion of certain subjects.”
Randall had made clear in the creation of the page she was hoping to create a forum “to hear from ANY Loudoun citizen on ANY issues, request, criticism, compliment, or just your thoughts.” Thus, the court ruled she was clearly violating the constituent's right to free speech.
President Trump is facing a similar lawsuit, which is currently working its way through New York's federal appeals courts. Trump, represented by the Justice Department, made the same argument as Randall. Per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Both officials, in separate court filings, contend their accounts on privately owned digital platforms are personal and that they can restrict who gets a chance to speak there without crossing constitutional lines.
Some pundits argue the Trump lawsuit is less clear-cut. Randall had clearly stated her intention to make her Facebook page a place for public discourse. Trump, however, has never made any such claim. Per Slate:
It isn’t clear whether Trump intends his personal Twitter page to function as a public forum the way Randall did. (Trump has a presidential account, @POTUS, from which he does not block users—but he doesn’t use it for interesting communications.) Public officials have more latitude to censor expression in personal, private forums than they do in forums that they use to speak in their official capacity. Trump’s lawyers will almost certainly argue that his personal Twitter feed is a private forum, not a government project.
Mark Joseph Stern argues at Slate that allowing citizens to comment freely, both negative and positive, on a politician's social media pages is of the utmost importance to maintain honesty and clarity.
Dissenting voices pose a threat to political brands. There is a reason why Trump blocks critics and retweets sycophants: He wants his Twitter feed to be a reflection of how he sees himself, and his inflated self-image cannot tolerate detractors. Phyllis Randall likely had much more benign intentions when she temporarily blocked Brian Davison, but the First Amendment prohibits her censorship all the same. We have a right to say harsh, foul, even vicious things to our lawmakers—and to do it on social media, for all the world to judge.