WASHINGTON — In a long-anticipated decision, the Supreme Court this morning ended a lawsuit initiated by the Knight Institute four years ago over President Trump’s practice of blocking critics from his social media account. The Trump administration had asked the Court to hear the case but abandoned the request on the eve of President Biden’s inauguration, stating that the case would become moot when President Trump left office. The Knight Institute agreed that the case had become moot but argued that the mootness resulted from Twitter’s decision to ban Trump from its platform in response to Trump’s repeated violation of its policies. In ending the litigation, the Supreme Court did not address the merits of the case, but it vacated the appeals court decision that held that President Trump acted unconstitutionally. Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion.
“This case was about a very simple principle that is foundational to our democracy: Public officials can’t bar people from public forums simply because they disagree with them. This simple principle helps ensure that people aren’t excluded from the democratic process on the basis of their political views, that public officials aren’t insulated from the opinions of their constituents, and that expressive forums that are important to our democracy aren’t transformed into echo chambers,” said Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s Executive Director, who argued the case before the Second Circuit. “While we would have liked the Supreme Court to leave the Second Circuit’s ruling on the books, we’re gratified that the appeals court’s reasoning has already been adopted by other courts, and we’re confident it will continue to shape the way that public officials use social media.”
The district court ruled in May 2018 that the president’s Twitter account constitutes a “public forum” under the First Amendment and that the president acted unconstitutionally when he blocked speakers from that account on the basis of viewpoint. A unanimous three-judge panel of the Second Circuit affirmed that ruling in July 2019, and in March of last year, the Second Circuit rejected a request by the Trump administration for a full-court review of that ruling. The administration petitioned the Court to review that decision in August 2020. The brief conceding that the case had become moot was filed late on January 19, 2021, by the outgoing Acting Solicitor General. On January 21, the Knight Institute responded.
In his concurrence, Justice Thomas conceded that the plaintiffs “have a point … that some aspects of Mr. Trump’s account resemble a constitutionally protected public forum,” but he highlighted the control exercised by the social media companies themselves. “Today’s digital platforms provide avenues for historically unprecedented amounts of speech, including speech by government actors. Also unprecedented, however, is the concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties.”
“We’re pleased with what we were able to accomplish in this litigation—not just forcing President Trump to unblock our clients and dozens of others from his Twitter account, but also establishing a precedent that other courts have invoked to preclude other public officials from silencing their social media critics,” said Katie Fallow, Senior Staff Attorney at the Knight Institute, who argued the case before the district court. “Public officials’ social media accounts play an increasingly important role in our democracy. As multiple courts have now recognized, the public forum doctrine applies to these accounts in the same way that it applies to expressive forums offline.”
The case involving President Trump’s Twitter account was the first major litigation filed by the Knight Institute, which was established by Columbia University and the Knight Foundation in 2016 to promote the freedoms of speech and the press in the digital age. The Institute has since filed other major lawsuits relating to government surveillance of visa applicants, public access to government records, and censorship of former public servants.
The Second Circuit was the second appellate court in the country to hold that a public official’s social media account can sometimes be a public forum under the First Amendment. In January 2019, in a case that Fallow argued, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a local public official had violated the First Amendment by blocking a constituent from her Facebook page. Late last year, the Eighth Circuit heard argument in another case involving similar issues; the Knight Institute filed an amicus brief in that case and also participated in oral argument.
Read about the seven plaintiffs—Philip Cohen, Eugene Gu, Holly Figueroa, Nicholas Pappas, Joseph Papp, Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, and Brandon Neely—who brought the lawsuit against Trump here.
Read today’s decision here.
Read more about Knight Institute v. Trump here.
Lawyers on the case include, in addition to Jaffer and Fallow, Carrie DeCell, Alex Abdo, and Lyndsey Wajert of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, and Jessica Ring Amunson, Tassity S. Johnson, and Tali R. Leinwand of Jenner & Block.
For more information, contact: Lorraine Kenny, [email protected].