WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court today said it would review decisions by the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Sixth and Ninth Circuits addressing when government officials’ social media accounts are subject to the First Amendment. The two circuits reached different conclusions on the question–a question that was earlier raised in a case brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf of people who were blocked from then-President Trump’s Twitter account. The Second Circuit ruled for the plaintiffs in the Knight Institute’s case but the Supreme Court later vacated the ruling, finding that the case had become moot because Trump was no longer a government official.
The following can be attributed to Katie Fallow, senior counsel at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University:
“With more and more public officials using social media to communicate with their constituents about official business, public officials’ social media accounts are playing the role that have historically been played by city council meetings, school board meetings, and other offline public forums. As many courts have held, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the president or a local city manager, government officials can’t block people from these forums simply because they don’t like what they’re saying. The Supreme Court should reaffirm that basic First Amendment principle.”
In Garnier v. O’Connor-Ratcliff, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that two school board trustees acted in their official capacities when they created and maintained public social media pages to discuss their work. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held in Lindke v. Freed that a city manager in Michigan did not violate a city resident’s rights when he blocked access to his Facebook page because, under a narrow test, the court found that he was operating the account in a personal capacity.
In related cases litigated by the Knight Institute, the U.S. Courts of Appeals for both the Second and Fourth Circuits have held that public officials who block people from their official social media accounts based on viewpoint are violating the First Amendment. In Knight Institute v. Trump, the Second Circuit held that then-President Trump could not block users from his @realDonaldTrump account because “he disagree[d] with their speech.” In April 2021, after Trump was no longer president, the Court found the case to be moot and vacated the Second Circuit decision on that basis, without addressing the merits. Read more about that case here.