Federal Court Rules that President Trump’s Blocking of Twitter Critics Violates First Amendment

May 23, 2018

A federal judge ruled today that President Trump’s practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account violates the First Amendment. The decision by Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York comes in a case filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf of people who were blocked from the @realDonaldTrump account after they criticized the president and his policies.

“We’re pleased with the court’s decision, which reflects a careful application of core First Amendment principles to government censorship on a new communications platform,” said Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s executive director. “The president’s practice of blocking critics on Twitter is pernicious and unconstitutional, and we hope this ruling will bring it to an end.”

The Knight Institute filed the lawsuit against President Trump and his aides last July on behalf of seven individuals whom President Trump blocked from the @realDonaldTrump account after they criticized him on the social media platform. Those blocked from the account are prevented from viewing the president’s tweets, replying directly to those tweets, and viewing the comment threads associated with those tweets while they are logged into their Twitter accounts. Profiles of the Knight Institute’s plaintiffs are here.

In her opinion, Judge Buchwald agrees with the Institute that the “interactive space” associated with the president’s Twitter account constitutes a “public forum” under the First Amendment and that the president is therefore barred from blocking speakers from his account on the basis of viewpoint. 

Judge Buchwald also endorses the Knight Institute’s argument that the president’s actions violate the First Amendment by distorting the debate in the comment threads, and by depriving followers of the @realDonaldTrump account of speech that would have been expressed by those who have been blocked.

“The First Amendment prohibits government officials from suppressing speech on the basis of viewpoint,” said Katie Fallow, senior staff attorney at the Institute. “The court’s application of that principle here should guide all of the public officials who are communicating with their constituents through social media.”

Earlier this month, the Knight Institute also announced it would represent Brian Davison, a Virginia resident who was temporarily blocked from the Facebook page of a local public official, as his case proceeds before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. 

Read the decision here.

About the Knight Institute

The Knight First Amendment Institute defends the freedoms of speech and the press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education. Its aim is to promote a system of free expression that is open and inclusive, that broadens and elevates public discourse, and that fosters creativity, accountability, and effective self-government.

For more information, contact the Knight Institute at ujala.sehgal@knightcolumbia.org.