President Donald Trump's habit of blocking critics from following his Twitter account faces a legal challenge that seeks to prevent him from tuning out those with opposing views.
On Tuesday, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed a lawsuit in New York's Southern District on behalf of seven people who have been prevented from following the President's @realDonaldTrump account.
The complaint follows an unanswered letter sent by the organization last month. It claims Trump's practice of blocking Twitter followers represents an unconstitutional attempt to suppress dissent.
"Because of their criticism of the President, these Plaintiffs have been prevented or impeded from viewing the President's tweets, from replying to the tweets, from viewing the discussions associated with the tweets, and from participating in those discussions," the complaint claims.
Citing the Supreme Court's acknowledgement of the important role social media platforms now play in civic and political discourse, the free speech advocacy group contends that being denied the ability to interact with the President's Twitter account violates the law.
"Because of the way the President and his aides use the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account, the account is a public forum under the First Amendment," the complaint claims.
The lawsuit names President Trump, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and White House Social Media Director Daniel Scavino as defendants, all of whom are said to have access to the @realDonaldTrump account.
Twitter declined to comment on the number of people who have been blocked from following the President's account. Plaintiffs aside, some of the more well-known individuals denied access to Trump's account include author Stephen King, actor Marina Sirtis, writer Bess Kalb, entrepreneur AJ Joshi, and journalist Mike Elgan, to name a few.
Future of unwelcome interactions on social media
Twitter incidentally has been trying to provide its users with more control over how people can communicate with them, due to the ease with which the service can be abused by internet trolls. If the Knight First Amendment Institute prevails, public officials may have fewer options for avoiding unwelcome interaction on social media channels.
While @realDonaldTrump began as a personal account in 2009, it has become an official communications channel, the complaint contends, noting that it has 33 million followers – 14 million more than @POTUS and 19 million more than @WhiteHouse.
Not only has the account been used to make official announcements, but federal agencies, federal courts, and foreign governments treat Trump's tweets as official statements, the complaint says.
Spicer, asked via Twitter for comment, did not respond.
"But right now I feel only hope," she said. "The right to seek a legal remedy when the president violates my rights is an extraordinary thing, one of many things that makes America great." ®