Seven individuals blocked by Donald Trump's personal Twitter account are suing the president and his communications staff because they say it's unconstitutional for the president to exercise “viewpoint-based blocking.”
The Knight First Amendment Institute filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs on Tuesday morning in New York's Southern District, about one month after the organization issued an open letter calling for the president to unblock users who'd replied to the president's tweets with harsh criticisms. The original open letter suggested that a suit was pending if Trump and his team did not comply. The White House never responded to the letter.
In a formal complaint issued by Knight Institute lawyers Jameel Jaffer, Katherine Fallow, and Alex Abdo, they argue that as president, Trump's personal “account is a public forum under the First Amendment.” As evidence, the attorneys note that the Trump White House has previously acknowledged that Trump's tweets are “official statements,” and that Trump and his communications staff “use the account to make formal announcements, defend the President’s official actions, report on meetings with foreign leaders, and promote the administration’s positions.”
Most notably, the complaint quotes the recent Packingham v. North Carolina Supreme Court case, which noted in its ruling that social media accounts were “perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard.” The Knight Institute attorneys argue in their complaint that a ban on interacting with @realDonaldTrump silences that citizen's voice and also deprives other accounts “of their right to read the speech of the dissenters who have been blocked.”
Represented in the suit are seven individuals, all of whom were blocked after criticizing Trump. While a majority appear to be Trump critics, a few claim to be joining the suit for less partisan reasons. “I’m troubled that the president can create a space on Twitter — where there are millions of people — that he can manipulate to give the impression that more agree with him than actually do,” Philip Cohen, a university professor, said in a statement about the suit.
When contacted, Twitter declined to comment on the lawsuit. Still, the complaint highlights the peculiar and uncharted territory of a presidency whose messaging is conducted largely across social media. Trump's @realDonaldTrump account, while used for official statements, is still a personal Twitter account. @POTUS remains the official account of the 45th president. On his personal account, Trump is theoretically able to control who he blocks and follows, as well as whether to make his account public or private (at the time of writing, his account remains unprotected and accessible to those he hasn't blocked).
But since taking office, Trump and his staff have been criticized for not subjecting his personal Twitter account to the usual levels of transparency normally affixed to White House communications. Trump has, for example, deleted a number of tweets with typos, which critics say is a violation of the Presidential Records Act. In June, an Illinois Congressman introduced the “Covfefe Act” — a tongue-in-cheek nod to Trump's infamous typo tweet — which aimed to make all Trump tweets subject to the Presidential Records Act and cataloguing in the National Archives.
Still, the First Amendment argument is a murky one. The suit alleges that “those who are blocked from the account are impeded in their ability to learn information that is shared only through that account” — however, users could still set up a new account to see Trump's tweets, or log out of the blocked account and go to Trump's profile. Similarly, the nature of a Trump tweet — each one is obsessively covered across the internet, and in print and cable news, as retweeted and quote retweeted — makes it highly unlikely that even a blocked user would never see a controversial 140-character presidential missive.
But for vocal opponents of Trump and his policies, Twitter has become ground zero for the resistance. In June, one active tweeter recently blocked by Trump told BuzzFeed News that engaging with a Trump tweet was a form of catharsis, and a chance to “fight back” during what he calls a “particularly depressing time” in politics. Similarly, duking it out in the President's mentions virtually guarantees vast exposure in the form of likes, retweets, and impressions, which, for many, is proof that their message has been heard. And though they could create another account or log out, one of the defendants in the suit suggests that, when it comes to the leader of the free world, that option is not sufficient.
“If I protest something that the president says or does, I want to do it under my own name,” Holly Figueroa, an organizer and party to the lawsuit, said, “not hiding in the shadows.”