WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court is tackling the question of when public officials can block critics from commenting on their social media accounts, an issue that first arose in a case involving former President Donald Trump.
The justices are hearing arguments in two cases Tuesday involving lawsuits filed by people who were blocked after leaving critical comments on social media accounts belonging to school board members in southern California and a city manager in Port Huron, Michigan, northeast of Detroit.
The cases are part of a term-long focus on the relationship between government and the private digital platforms.
Early next year, the court will evaluate Republican-passed laws in Florida and Texas that prohibit large social media companies from taking down posts because of the views they express. The tech companies said that the laws violate their First Amendment rights. The laws reflect a view among Republicans that the platforms disproportionately censor conservative viewpoints.
Also on the agenda is a challenge from Missouri and Louisiana to the Biden administration’s efforts to combat controversial social media posts on topics including COVID-19 and election security. The states argue that the administration has been unconstitutionally coercing the platforms into cracking down on conservative positions.
Tuesday’s cases delving into the common use of social media by public officials are less overtly partisan. But they are similar to a case involving Trump and his decision to block critics from his personal account on Twitter, now known as X. The justices dismissed the case after Trump left office.
The @realdonaldtrump account had more than 88 million followers, but Trump argued that it was his personal property. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that Trump couldn’t silence critics because he used the account to make daily pronouncements and observations that are overwhelmingly official in nature.
Appeals courts in San Francisco and Cincinnati reached conflicting decisions about when personal accounts become official.
The first case involves two elected members of a California school board, the Poway Unified School District Board of Trustees. The members, Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane, used their personal Facebook and Twitter accounts to communicate with the public. Two parents, Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, left critical comments and replies to posts on the board members’ accounts and were blocked. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the board members had violated their free speech rights by doing so. Zane no longer serves on the school board.
The other case involves James Freed, who was appointed Port Huron ‘s city manager in 2014. Freed used the Facebook page he first created while in college to communicate with the public, as well as recount the details of daily life. In 2020, a resident, Kevin Lindke, used the page to comment several times from three Facebook profiles, including criticism of the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Freed blocked all three accounts and deleted Lindke’s comments. Lindke sued, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Freed, noting that his Facebook page talked about his roles as “father, husband, and city manager.”
The Biden administration is siding with the officials and urging the court to respect the distinction between officials’ private and public lives. In these cases, the government doesn’t control or operate the accounts, the Justice Department said.
On the other side of the case, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote that the officials in both cases took public, or state action, “when they excluded dissenting constituents from social media profiles that they held out as extension of their public office.”
Decisions in O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier, 22-324, and Lindke v. Freed, 22-611, are expected by early summer.