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The Supreme Court is weighing whether officials can be held accountable for blocking critics on social media 2024-04-20 13:08:08

Judges are considering a legal question that was never definitively resolved when former President Donald Trump blocked critics on Twitter.

The Supreme Court is examining a legal question that remained unresolved when then-President Donald Trump banned critics from following his Twitter posts: whether government officials can be held accountable for blocking or muting unwanted voices on social media.

Judges are hearing oral arguments in two cases involving members of a Southern California school board and a city manager in Michigan. While the officials are far less prominent than Trump, the legal dispute is similar to the lawsuit he faced: does blocking someone on social media constitute a violation of free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution?

The question revolves around whether the social media posts of government officials and other activities on social media platforms are part of their governmental functions. If they are, then preventing someone from following an official could be considered "state action" that could form the basis for a constitutional lawsuit.

As government officials increasingly use social media to directly interact with constituents, the Supreme Court's decision will establish rules for future cases.

The entire panel: Chief Justice Roberts has "no team now" May 28, 2023, 07:55 Trump faced a lawsuit when he was president, and the courts ruled against him, noting that he frequently used his Twitter account for official statements. However, the lawsuit was dismissed as moot once he left office in January 2021. At that time, Twitter suspended Trump's account, although the company has since changed its course under new ownership, Elon Musk, as part of a major overhaul that included renaming the social media site to X. However, in other disputes, courts have reached different conclusions.

The California case arose after two members of the Poway Unified School District board, Michelle O'Connor-Ratcliff and TJ Zane, blocked comments from Christopher and Kimberly Garner on their Facebook page in 2017. O'Connor-Ratcliff also prevented Christopher Garner from responding to her tweets. Zane has since left his position.

Although Garner's comments were lengthy and repetitive, they were not offensive or cruel, as determined by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in a 2022 ruling, affirming a similar decision by a federal judge in the Southern District of California. The Appeals Court concluded that elected officials were acting within their official capacities.

The Michigan dispute began in March 2020 when Port Huron City Manager James Freed, whose Facebook page described him as a "public figure," posted information about the city's efforts to combat Covid-19. After resident Kevin Lindke posted critical comments about the city's response, Freed blocked him.

Freed argues that his now-inactive Facebook page was personal, where he shared photos of his family and commented on his everyday activities. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding the lower court's decision, agreed in June of last year, ruling that Freed was not acting in his official capacity and, therefore, his Facebook activity did not constitute state action.

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Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in court documents that government officials engage in state action only when they use a private service like a social media platform to take official actions.

She argued that "simply being a government official is not enough to establish that the official engaged in state action."

The two cases being heard on Tuesday are part of a cluster of free speech issues related to social media that the Court is considering during its current term, which extends until June.

Later this year, the justices will hear oral arguments on the constitutionality of Florida and Texas laws, backed by Republicans, that prevent social media companies from blocking users for controversial rhetoric.

The Court will also consider allegations that the Biden administration unlawfully pressured social media platforms to remove certain content, a form of coercion dubbed "nudging."

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