Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Executive Branch

Blocking Twitter Users from the Presidential Account

Robert Loeb
Tuesday, June 13, 2017, 5:31 PM

President Trump’s alleged blocking of members of the public on Twitter on what appear to be viewpoint-based considerations, preventing them from reading his tweets and responding to them, raises serious constitutional issues.

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President Trump’s alleged blocking of members of the public on Twitter on what appear to be viewpoint-based considerations, preventing them from reading his tweets and responding to them, raises serious constitutional issues.

The Supreme Court has recognized that special free speech rights apply in areas such as streets and parks, which the Court has said have been “immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly.” As a social media platform, Twitter is not a street or a park, nor is it a government property. And no one can claim that the ability to see Twitter posts or reply to them are speech areas that have been “immemorially been held in trust” for speech and assembly. The First Amendment principles of free speech are broad and overarching, however, and must be honored in the context of the internet, even if tweets and websites were never contemplated by our constitutional framers. Where the government opens up a new type of forum for speech, whether on government property or on the internet, the same constitutional protection applies as that extended to expression in a traditional public forum.

The President has not, of course, formally designated the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account as a public forum. The President, however, uses his @realDonaldTrump account to speak to matters as President of the United States. He speaks to acts of foreign countries, court decisions, legislative proposals, posts video of cabinet meetings, and expresses his views as President on a host of public policy issues. Given how the account is used, it is clear that Mr. Trump is writing in his official capacity as President of the United States; this is not merely a personal social media account where Mr. Trump posts birthday greetings to friends and family. And if there were any doubt about the nature of this account and how it is used by the President, his own spokesperson put that doubt to rest when has said, without qualification, that the posts of the President on @realDonaldTrump should be “considered official statements by the President of the United States.” Notably, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit quoted that White House Press Secretary statement in its recent “Travel Ban” opinion.

That the President speaks in a particular forum does not by itself open up a right to respond in the same forum. For example, that the President posts press releases or other official statements on the White House website, does not open up the right of public to respond on that website. If, however, the government opened a comment forum on its website, that comment section might be considered a designated forum for speech. If so, regulation or restrictions on the rights of the public to post comments could be subject to strict scrutiny (where to enforce a content-based exclusion the government must show that its regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and that it is narrowly drawn to achieve that end). Or that hypothetical comment forum might be considered a limited public forum, where content regulations are allowed if they are "reasonable and viewpoint-neutral." As the Supreme Court wrote in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District,"[C]ontrol over access to a nonpublic forum can be based on subject matter and speaker identity so long as the distinctions drawn are reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum and are viewpoint neutral.”

In either case, the government may not suppress expression merely because it opposes the speaker's point of view. As the Supreme Court has explained: “It is axiomatic that the government may not regulate speech based on its substantive content or the message it conveys.” Therefore, “[v]iewpoint discrimination is thus an egregious form of content discrimination. The government must abstain from regulating speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction.”

Here, instead of a government website comment forum, the President is using the social media platform Twitter as a place to issue “official statements by the President of the United States” and permit comments thereto. Bloomberg BusinessWeek estimated that there are some 20,000 replies posted to a typical presidential tweet on the @realDonaldTrump. Thus, there is a thriving public forum or replies and counter responses on the speech platform employed by the President. And as Buzzfeed recently reported, the top replies to a @realDonaldTrump tweet are virtually guaranteed to get in front of hundreds of thousands of eyes. So, denial of the right to reply in this forum can be viewed as a significant impairment of a citizen’s speech rights.

For the President to generally permit tens of thousands of comments on his posts on the @realDonaldTrump forum, but then selectively ban citizens from posting replies to his president’s posts based upon the content, message or viewpoint of the citizen appears to be clearly contrary to established First Amendment principles. Yet, that is reportedly how the President is operating his Twitter account. For example, the Veteran advocacy group VoteVets, which represents (according to its website) more than 500,000 veterans, reports that it was blocked by the President after it criticized the President and his policies:

Robert Loeb is a partner in Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe's Supreme Court and Appellate Litigation practice. The former Acting Deputy Director of the Civil Division Appellate Staff at the U.S. Department of Justice, he has handled hundreds of cases before the court of appeals and the Supreme Court. While at DOJ, he served as Special Appellate Counsel for National Security and International Law matters. Posts here express the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, or its clients. This post is for general informational purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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