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Can government officials block you on social media? This depends on the Supreme Court. 2024-04-17 04:55:43

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in two important cases that examine the ability of government officials to block criticism on their personal social media pages.

These cases echo questions raised in the now-defunct lawsuit against then-President Donald Trump for blocking his critics on Twitter, now known as X.

The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking followers on Twitter. LAW The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking followers on Twitter. Kevin Lindke, a frequent government critic in Port Huron, Michigan, sued City Manager James Freed for blocking him from accessing Freed's personal Facebook page.

Lindke says he started posting comments on Freed's page at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic because he found information there that wasn't available elsewhere.

Freed "was issuing political directives. He was making press statements," Lindke says. "That was the only place information was getting out to the community."

Freed says he's not an elected official and that his personal Facebook page dates back to his college years. He says he maintains the page at home on his personal computer and that information about voters that he posted on Facebook was already public through the city's communications office and local media.

"Eighty percent of the posts are my personal family photos, photos of my dog. I'm a foodie ... I like to show pictures of me going out to eat," Freed says. "Many times" people with "mental health issues" attack government officials, Freed notes. But he always considered his page personal and under his control. "If I had for a moment thought this page was public and not under my control, I never would have posted pictures of my little girls or my wife."

Mentioning people with mental health issues is not accidental.

Though Freed says he doesn't remember Lindke's comments on his Facebook page, he says he blocked Lindke because of his aggressive behavior. "Much of this case he was incarcerated for stalking individuals," Freed says.

Lindke contends that his imprisonment was related to his nine-year battle for custody and that, despite this, his law violations had no relation to this case. He says he sued Freed for blocking his comments on a government Facebook page.

"This has been an ongoing issue with Mr. Freed, blocking and deleting people. He's been doing it for many years. I'm the first person to really challenge him on it," Lindke says.

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Lindke has been involved in disputes with other government officials and was even removed from a city council meeting. But many difficult people prevail in cases that test important constitutional principles.

The Question Before the Court The question before the Supreme Court on Tuesday is how courts should evaluate these issues when they arise on a government official's social media page. Most appellate courts have ruled that when government officials create an online space for public comments, the First Amendment's freedom of speech does not allow these officials to prohibit people whose comments they don't like.

A similar decision was made in another social media case the court is considering on Tuesday. It involves two members of the school board in Poway, California, who argued that their social media pages were extensions of their election campaigns and, therefore, were personal. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not buy that argument, ruling that when government officials have social media pages open for public discussion, they cannot block even annoying and repetitive comments.

But in the Port Huron case, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Freed's Facebook page was personal, that he didn't use his government powers to maintain it and, therefore, didn't use his office to block Lindke. In short, he didn't use state power to suppress Lindke's speech.

What Lawyers Are Arguing Local governments weighed in on these cases before the Supreme Court. Stressing that government officials also have First Amendment rights, they are asking the justices to establish a clear standard that local officials can easily apply to understand the rules and when they can be held accountable.

Amanda Karras, chief legal counsel for the International Municipal Lawyers Association, conducts what she calls a "authority check." Does the local government own the social media account? Does it allow or require the creation of an account, and does this account use government resources?

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