Supreme Court establishes new test for First Amendment cases involving public officials blocking critical social media users

 March 17, 2024

Readers may recall that former President Donald Trump was sued in 2017 by critical Twitter users he'd blocked on the platform. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Trump, as a public official, had unconstitutionally violated the First Amendment rights of those blocked users, only for the whole case to later be dismissed on appeal by the Supreme Court as moot after Trump was banned from Twitter.

The Supreme Court just ruled on two more cases involving public officials blocking users on social media, and the new ruling could impact Trump's social media habits if he wins re-election to another term as president in November, according to The Washington Times.

In a unanimous ruling, the high court established a new two-part test for such instances of public officials blocking users on social media that is largely dependent on specific circumstances and, on the one hand, provides flexibility for officials speaking in a private capacity while, on the other, holds them liable for violating the First Amendment if acting in their official capacity.

Public officials blocking critical social media users and whether that violates the First Amendment

The first of the two cases, Lindke v. Freed, involves Port Huron, Michigan, City Manager James Freed, who operated a "mixed-use" Facebook page that was predominately used for personal matters but occasionally was also used for official purposes.

During the pandemic, city resident Kevin Lindke posted comments on Freed's posts critical of the city's response, which initially led to Freed deleting those comments before ultimately blocking Lindke from his page. Lindke sued under the First Amendment, specifically 42 U.S.C. § 1983, but both a district court and the 6th Circuit Court ruled in favor of Freed as it was determined that his Facebook page was predominately managed in a personal capacity.

The second case, O'Conner-Ratcliff v. Garnier, involved two California school board trustees, Michelle O'Conner-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane, who operated primarily official Facebook pages that were deluged with spam posts from a couple, Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, who had children that attended schools in the district and were highly critical of the board of trustees.

The two trustees initially deleted the comments before blocking the Garniers altogether, which resulted in a First Amendment lawsuit under § 1983 and both a district court and the 9th Circuit Court ruling in favor of the parents that the two officials were liable for violating their right to free speech on official posts.

That split at the circuit court level, as well as the disparate means by which the differing opinions were reached, compelled the Supreme Court to take up both cases and settle the dispute on when public officials can be held liable for First Amendment violations when blocking other social media users from their pages.

Court establishes new two-part test to determine public officials' liability for online free speech violations

Justice Amy Coney Barrett authored the unanimous 18-page ruling in Lindke v. Freed that, in effect, created a new two-part test for courts to follow in dealing with First Amendment disputes involving public officials blocking critical users on social media platforms.

"When a government official posts about job-related topics on social media, it can be difficult to tell whether the speech is official or private," Barrett wrote on behalf of the court. "We hold that such speech is attributable to the State only if the official (1) possessed actual authority to speak on the State’s behalf, and (2) purported to exercise that authority when he spoke on social media."

To be sure, the court acknowledged that some cases won't be straightforward and would require the courts to review the particular circumstances of a social media block to determine whether it was made in a personal or official capacity.

In the end, the 6th Circuit's judgment was vacated and the case was remanded for further consideration under the new test. Likewise, in an unsigned three-page order that referenced the Lindke decision, the 9th Circuit's ruling in the O'Connor-Ratcliff case was similarly vacated and remanded for further consideration.

Ruling could impact Trump's social media usage if re-elected

CBS News, in reporting on the two rulings, noted how former President Trump had been similarly sued by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf of blocked Twitter users, and how a district court and the 2nd Circuit Court had ruled in favor of the blocked users, only for those judgments to be vacated and the entire case dismissed as moot by the Supreme Court after Trump was banned from Twitter in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot of 2021.

Now, in response to the new rulings, a senior fellow for the Knight First Amendment Institute told the outlet, "We're gratified that the court recognized that public officials must comply with the First Amendment when they use their personal social media accounts to carry out their official duties, as former President Trump did with his Twitter account," and added, "The Court was also right to hold that public officials can't immunize themselves from First Amendment liability merely by using their personal accounts to conduct official business."

Latest News

© 2024 - Patriot News Alerts