Supreme Court rules on when government officials can block social media users

 March 16, 2024

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court just issued a ruling in an important First Amendment case, Lindke v. Freed.

At issue in this case, according to ABC News, was whether public officials violate the U.S. Constitution when they block constituents on social media.

The justices did issue a unanimous decision. But, they did not give a clear-cut, "yes" or "no" ruling.

Rather, they put forth a test that lower courts can use to judge whether or not a public official violates the U.S. Constitution when they block constituents on social media.

The test

Whether or not the blockage is Constitutional, according to the justices, depends on whether the official is acting in his or her official capacity or whether the official is acting personally.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote:

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. 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.

It, of course, can be extremely difficult to make this distinction considering that many officials use their social media accounts for both private and public purposes.

Barrett said that what is important here is the "substance," not the "labels."

"Private parties can act with the authority of the state, and state officials have private lives and their own constitutional rights. Categorizing conduct, therefore, can require a close look," Barrett wrote.


The Hill provides the relevant background of this case. There were two separate cases, from different parts of the country, that dealt with the same issue.

"The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard the Michigan case, sided with the city manager, James Freed, who deleted comments on his Facebook page left by a resident and blocked several of the resident’s profiles. The resident, Kevin Lindke, had criticized Freed over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, court filings indicate," the outlet reports.

The Hill adds, "The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard the California case, said Poway, Calif., school board members Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane violated the First Amendment after blocking constituents on their Facebook pages and O’Conner-Ratcliff’s account on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter."

To clarify, the justices of the Supreme Court did not affirm or deny either ruling in either case. Rather, they put forth the test, and now it is up to the lower courts to apply this test in each case.

Time will tell how effective this test is to solving the problem.

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