In April, Protect The 1st reported on two pending cases before the Supreme Court, O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier and Lindke v. Freed, addressing the question of what constitutes a public forum on Facebook. In both lawsuits, public officials blocked criticism from constituents on their social media sites; in both instances, the constituents sued.
Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to deliberate the urgent question: When does a personal account become public? This is the first time the Court will address the difference between public and private fora against the backdrop of the digital age. In our Protect The First Foundation amicus brief in O’Connor-Ratcliff, we write:
“The state action question in this case implicates two vital First Amendment rights: that of citizens to access government fora, and that of public officials to control with whom and how they communicate when they speak in their private capacities. As this case demonstrates, those rights are in tension when it is not immediately apparent whether a government representative is operating a social media account in her public or private capacity.”
The petitioners argue that they should be able to block constituents from their social media profiles, on which they discussed government business, as long as their actions aren’t affirmatively required as one of their government duties and they don’t explicitly invoke state authority.
In short, they wish to summon their own First Amendment rights to silence their critics in a public forum.
For many years now, Members of Congress have segregated their personal and public accounts. They are correct in doing so, and this situation shows why. The legal issue is at what point does a public official’s actions constitute “state action.” And here, the officials’ social media pages are draped in their status as public servants – even though they began as personal campaign pages. With great regularity, they post about official government business and use their accounts to facilitate their government duties. As such, they cannot then claim that when they operate those accounts they are private actors.
Government officials, like everyone else, have First Amendment rights. But they cannot have their cake and eat it too by speaking with the authority of government while erasing the access of their critics to that speech.
The fact is that we must – now – delineate the limits and boundaries of social media’s power in the context of public service. If you are a public official, you cannot – must not – be able to silence your critics in a public forum under the auspices of your own First Amendment rights.
Sorry. Sometimes you just have to take the heat.
The threats to donor privacy keep coming. In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Americans for Prosperity v. Bonta against a California law that would have forced non-profit organizations to report the identities of their donors to the state. That bad idea has now wafted across the Colorado River to find new life.
Arizona’s Proposition 211, “The Voters’ Right to Know Act,” would require organizations that promote, support, attack, or oppose a candidate within six months of an election – or mounts any public communication that refers to a candidate within 90 days of a primary – to disclose the identities of donors who give more than $5,000.
Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard has said that there is no evidence harassment of donors would be a problem. Does he not watch the news? To dismiss the danger of donors being “doxxed” is to ignore a pile of evidence as high as Camelback Mountain. A few years ago, Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was forced out of his job when the California Attorney General mandated the disclosure of donors in support of Proposition 8, which supported traditional marriage. Small donors received death threats and envelopes containing white powder. Their names and ZIP codes were helpfully overlaid on a Google Map.
And don’t overlook the tense state of our political culture, one in which Rep. Steve Scalise received multiple gunshots and the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had his skull fractured by a hammer. In both instances, disturbed men acted on political impulses.
A chilling effect on the free exercise of one’s First Amendment rights need not come from violence. Exposure can heighten donors’ fear that they, or their businesses, will be singled out by vengeful regulators with political motivations or by activist boycotts. Whispered threats of cancellation can be just as effective as the cancellations themselves.
Tellingly, the group behind this measure – the Voters’ Right to Know Committee – discloses the names of small donors, but does not disclose in its most recent official campaign report the corporations and out-of-state PACs behind this ballot initiative.
Perhaps this committee’s “dark money” donors appreciate the words of Justice John Marshall Harlan II, who wrote in the NAACP v. Alabama decision that immunity from state scrutiny supports the rights of Americans “to pursue their lawful private interests privately and to associate freely with others.”