It might sound like a trivial question at a time when speech rights are threatened all around the country, but it’s at the forefront of several First Amendment legal battles.
The role and importance of online speech has grown dramatically in the last decade and lots of government broadcasts, outreach, and business is now done through official social media accounts. For example, each President gets his own official Twitter account, through which he can speak to the public.
Such accounts have altered the nature of social media and have become the subject of controversy. In 2017, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sued President Trump for blocking American citizens on his official Twitter account. They argued that blocking accounts suppresses speech and prevents users from reading official government policy and announcements. The Knight Institute won in both the District Court for the Southern District of New York and the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Supreme Court vacated the case in 2021 after President Trump was not reelected.
A more recent case seeks to argue along the same lines against other official government accounts. (A hat tip to Eugene Volokh of Reason Magazine for detailing the arguments of this case.) Bruce Gilley is a political science professor at Portland State University. Gilley has filed suit against Tova Stabin, the communications manager of the University of Oregon Division of Equity and Inclusion for blocking him on Twitter. The University of Oregon is a public university, meaning its official Twitter accounts are run by the government. Gilley’s complaint reads:
“In both cases, the University of Oregon has created the @UOEquity Twitter account to engage with the public and to solicit feedback. Its purpose is to interact with the public and to foster exchange. That is a public forum. Defendant Stabin was and is a state actor acting in the course and scope of her employment when she blocked, and continues to block, Bruce Gilley from the @UOEquity account. Defendant Stabin acted in a viewpoint discriminatory manner when she blocked Bruce Gilley from the @UOEquity Twitter account.”
It remains to be seen if other courts will stick to the official business framework that worked so well for the Knight Institute.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) deployed it recently when they sent a letter to the Director of Media Services for the New York State Senate requesting that the Senate stop blocking Twitter critics and hiding their tweets. The New York State Senate’s Twitter account frequently blocks or hides criticism of legislation and legislators. The letter reads: “courts across the country have recognized that when a government actor invites public comments on social media, the government actor’s regulation of that online speech is restrained by the First Amendment.”
PT1st looks forward to further developments in the state of online speech rights. Additional questions will need to be answered. Would a prohibition on official government accounts blocking other users offer protections to non-Americans? How do we uphold the rights of citizens in an era of online anonymity?