When is a supposed victory for the First Amendment potentially a defeat for the First Amendment?
When it involves the courts telling President Donald Trump he can’t block people on Twitter.
A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld unanimously this week a lower court ruling that said the president blocking people from the social media platform is a violation of their First Amendment rights.
“(The) First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees,” the panel held.
First Amendment groups hailed the ruling.
“This decision will have implications far beyond Trump, as public officials around the country have been found to have blocked journalists and critics from their official social media accounts,” tweeted the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
And the suit was filed by another First Amendment group, The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
We agree with the Freedom of the Press Foundation about one thing: The decision will have implications far beyond Trump — just not implications the foundation will like.
The most likely fallout will be to discourage public officials from using social media in the first place.
It takes a pretty thick skin to be a politician in the era of digital media. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, or something else entirely, there are people who have nothing better to do than shout at you online.
We don’t have a lot of sympathy for Trump in this case. He has shown over years of active Twitter use that he can dish out abuse but can’t take it. We’ve lost track of his many feuds not only with politicians but with celebrities. But this isn’t just about President Trump.
Does the First Amendment really demand that public officials subject themselves to all manner of abuse from everyone online, including people who argue anonymously or in bad faith? What if the people aren’t people at all but automated bots?
Many public officials may decide social media simply isn’t worth the hassle. They’ll stay offline or use their social media for nothing but banal pronouncements put out by their office interns.
The fact remains no one Trump blocked was prevented from seeing what the president had to say. One need only log out of Twitter to get around the block feature and view Trump’s tweets.
It is true that people blocked on Twitter can’t respond to the person blocking them, but does the First Amendment right to petition the government require access to a specific, private platform to do so?
This is a dubious application of First Amendment principles. Moreover, the problem is minor, while the solution could have far-reaching negative consequences. It’s the legal equivalent of treating a hangnail by amputating an arm.