Can President Trump Block Twitter Users From His Twitter?

The president’s @realDonaldTrump Twitter account has more than 33 million followers.  Since 2009, he has sent more then 35,000 messages on that account.  Richard Wolf, “Trump Sued After Blocking Twitter Followers,” USA Today, July 12, 2017, p. 2A. But, Mr. Trump blocked some users because they criticized or mocked him.  Now, those users, with the help of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, have filed suit in federal district court in New York claiming that the Constitution bars Mr. Trump from blocking people on social media.

The battle began when Holly O’Reilly, whose Twitter account is @AynRandPaulRyan responded to President Trump’s expressed concerned about top secret information on terrorism sent from Britain to the United States in the wake of the Manchester attack being leaked to the press.  Ms. O’Reilly wrote, “YOU ARE THE LEAKER, you bloody idiot.  God, you’re embarrassing.”  She also wrote another post with a picture of Pope Francis looking very uncomfortable as he faced Mr. Trump.  She wrote, “This is pretty much how the whole world sees you.”  Charlie Savage, “Blocked by the President, They Claim It’s Censorship,” New York Times, June 7, 2017, p. A18. 

Their argument is that Mr. Trump’s use of his Twitter account as president has turned it into a designated public forum in which Twitter users have First Amendment protections.  Mr. Trump’s block, ergo, amounts to government censorship of speech. The executive director of the Knight Institute said, “Thought the architects of the Constitution surely didn’t contemplate presidential Twitter accounts, they understood that the president must not be allowed to banish views from public discourse simply because he finds them objectionable.”  Charlie Savage, “Blocked by the President, They Claim It’s Censorship,” New York Times, June 7, 2017, p. A18. The plaintiffs have described Twitter as an electronic town hall where all must be permitted to participate even when their expressions are acerbic or insulting.

The Institute first wrote to the president and his communications staff in June, and when the president refused to undo the blocking filed the suit.  The president has responded indicating that his @POTUS account is his official government site and no one is blocked from tweets on that site.

Mr. Trump had previously blocked model and actress Chrissy Tiegen and author Stephen King from his account, but neither pursued legal remedies. Ms. Tiegen had followed Mr. Trump for 5-7 years before she was blocked following a Tweet in which she used rather salty language in addressing the president. The list of the famous banished can he found here.

In preparation for the case, the plaintiffs are collecting various tweets that indicate the account is used for official government business, such as when Mr. Trump used Twitter to announce his nomination for the new FBI director

DISCUSSION STARTERS 

Explain the First Amendment issue raised in the suit.

Does it make any difference that the Twitter users have other avenues for expression beyond responses on Mr. Trump’s tweets?