In July 2017, President Trump was sued by several users he had blocked on Twitter, who claimed their exclusion from the public forum constituted a First Amendment violation. Then, in October 2018, he was sued again, by a group claiming he had used governmental regulatory mechanisms to threaten media outlets, once more violating the First Amendment.
President Donald Trump is known for his prolific Twitter use, which has led to legal troubles with a number of groups.
The Knight FIrst Amendment Institute was established at Columbia University in 2016 and seeks to defend Free Speech and freedom of the press. The institute served as legal counsel for the seven people who sued Trump for blocking them on Twitter.
PEN America is an organization that represents writers and other figures in the literary community, and also defends First Amendment values.
Before filing the first lawsuit, the plaintiffs, including a comedy writer and a journalist for The Daily Kos, wrote in June 2017 to the White House requesting they be unblocked from access to Trump’s Twitter account. When their requests were ignored, they filed the legal action, which listed both Trump and Dan Scavino, the White House’s social media director, along with other high-ranking administration officials, as defendants.
The Knight First Amendment Institute argued that Trump’s Twitter feed constituted an official government tool, a characterization that the Department of Justice pushed back on. The institute added that the account is a public forum from which the plaintiffs had been purposefully excluded. The Twitter account in question, @realDonaldTrump, was established by Trump in 2009 and has since garnered 48 million followers; @POTUS, the account that passes from one president to another, has about 22 million followers, according to the Times.
The original case was heard in a Manhattan federal court, presided over by Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald. In a March 2018 hearing, Buchwald questioned both sides rigorously, according to the Times, at one point suggesting the president “mute” followers rather than “block” them. Muting critics would conceal their tweets from Trump, but critics would still be able to see the president’s tweets, which would not be possible once they were blocked from Trump’s account.
In October 2018, PEN America (PEN) also filed a suit against Trump. PEN argued that he had demonstrated a pattern of behavior that seeks to interfere with the free press, separate from his rhetorical attacks on media outlets.
PEN cited a number of troublesome incidents, Fortune reported, including a demand that the U.S. Postal Service increase Amazon’s delivery rates after negative coverage of him was published in The Washington Post, a publication owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; a Justice Department lawsuit to prevent the merger between AT&T and Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, which Trump frequently derides; and threats to challenge the broadcast licenses of TV stations owned by NBC.or carrying its programs.
Fortune suggested that PEN may struggle to establish standing in court to file the lawsuit, as it does not directly represent any of the affected organizations, though some of its members work for these groups.
Manhattan federal court rules Trump cannot block Twitter users; administration appeals
In May 2018, Buchwald ruled that the president’s @realDonaldTrump Twitter account did in fact, among others, violated the First Amendment.
“The viewpoint-based exclusion of the individual plaintiffs from that designated public forum is proscribed by the First Amendment and cannot be justified by the president’s personal First Amendment interests,” Buchwald wrote in the ruling.
Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute, suggested the ruling would have vital implications beyond the case of Trump’s feed, the Times reported. “This ruling should put them on notice, and if they censor critics from social media accounts used for official purposes, they run the risk that someone will sue them and win,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Justice Department said at the time that it “respectfully disagree(s) with the court’s decision” and was considering its next steps.
Although Buchwald did not issue an injunction formally ordering the White House to unblock the users, the administration did so in June 2018, according to The New York Times.
“The decision to unblock the plaintiffs from interacting with Mr. Trump’s account was a gesture of constitutional modesty by the Trump administration at a time when he and his lawyers have been making increasingly aggressive assertions of executive powers,” the Times wrote.
At the same time it unblocked the users, however, the White House appealed the federal court’s ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. The suit brought by PEN is pending.
Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20
Uploaded December 6, 2018