In a lengthy, 75-page decision, judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York just ruled that the President’s blocking of Twitter users from the @realdonaldtrump account violates those users’ First Amendment rights.
The decision goes into painstaking detail about not just the legal merits, but also into the technical details of how the platform works. In short, the court found that a government official’s Twitter page is in fact a public forum when used by the government official, officially for official purposes. Curiously though, the ruling of the court fell short of ordering the President to unblock those he has already blocked.
Above the Tweet
While Twitter may not be a traditional public forum, the court’s decision carefully weaves prior precedents to show that it can still fit the bill. And while the defense sought to defeat injunctive relief through claiming the court couldn’t issue an injunctive order against the President, that argument was both summarily rejected and sidestepped. In explaining why she didn’t bother with ordering injunctive relief, Judge Buchwald wrote:
A declaratory judgment should be sufficient, as no government official – including the President – is above the law, and all government officials are presumed to follow the law as has been declared.
The gist of the court’s reasoning is simple. Like a piece of private property, when a government official or entity opens those private doors to the public, that private place can become a designated public forum.
It’s less about ownership than it is about control. If the government controls the property, then First Amendment restrictions on prohibiting speech likely apply. The court noted that the President controlled his Twitter feed and used it as an official communication channel. The court found that considering how the platform functions, President Trump’s “interactive” Twitter feed is a “designated public forum,” and therefore viewpoint restrictions are unconstitutional.
Mute Not Moot
Twitter offers users the option to “mute” other users. The mute function simply removes the muted user from the view of the person doing the muting. As the judge suggested at the hearing on the matter, President Trump may want to use that feature rather than blocking.