Critics Blocked from President’s Twitter Account File Suit 

July 11, 2017

Joined by seven individuals from across the country, the Knight First Amendment Institute filed suit in the Southern District of New York today contending that President Trump and his communications team are violating the First Amendment by blocking individuals from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account because they criticized the president or his policies. The Knight Institute sent a letter to the White House last month suggesting that it would file suit if the president and his aides did not unblock individuals who had been blocked because of their views. The White House did not respond to that letter.

“President Trump’s Twitter account has become an important source of news and information about the government, and an important forum for speech by, to, or about the president,” said Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s executive director. “The First Amendment applies to this digital forum in the same way it applies to town halls and open school board meetings. The White House acts unlawfully when it excludes people from this forum simply because they’ve disagreed with the president.”

The president and his aides have aggressively promoted the @realDonaldTrump account as a key channel for communication between the president and the public. The White House uses the account to make formal announcements, defend the president’s official decisions and actions, report on meetings with foreign leaders, and promote the administration’s positions on health care, immigration, foreign affairs, and other matters. The president’s advisors have stated that tweets from @realDonaldTrump are “official statements.”

The White House acts unlawfully when it excludes people from this forum simply because they’ve disagreed with the president.
Jameel Jaffer

Today’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven people from across the country who have been blocked from the account by the president or his aides. The blocking prevents or impedes these people from reading the president’s tweets, responding directly, or participating in the discussions that take place in the comment threads generated by the president’s tweets. The complaint argues that the @realDonaldTrump account is a “public forum” under the First Amendment, meaning that the government cannot exclude people from it simply because of their views. It also contends that the White House is violating the seven individual plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to petition their government for redress of grievances.

Moreover, the lawsuit contends that the White House also violates the rights of those who have not been blocked -- such as the Knight Institute, a plaintiff in the case -- who now participate in a forum that has been purged of many critical voices.

“The White House is transforming a public forum into an echo chamber,” said Katie Fallow, a senior staff attorney at the Knight Institute. “Its actions violate the rights of the people who’ve been blocked and the rights of those who haven’t been blocked but who now participate in a forum that’s being sanitized of dissent.”

Last month, the Supreme Court observed that social media platforms like Twitter have provided “perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard,” and, in particular, allow citizens to “petition their elected representatives and otherwise engage with them in a direct manner.”

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the viewpoint-based blocking of people from the @realDonaldTrump account is unconstitutional, and to order the White House to restore access to the seven people represented by the Institute.

Knight Institute lawyers who worked on this suit apart from Jaffer and Fallow include Alex Abdo.

About the Knight Institute

The Knight First Amendment Institute is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization established by Columbia University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to defend the freedoms of speech and press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education.