- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2019

A federal appeals court shot down President Trump’s attempts to block critics from his Twitter account, ruling Tuesday that government officials’ social media platforms are public forums protected by the First Amendment.

While the ruling stemmed from the president’s @realDonaldTrump account and seven people he blocked, analysts said its bigger effect will likely be on thousands of state and local officials who try to shut down criticism on their social media accounts.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means that the best response to disfavored speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less,” Judge Barrington D. Parker wrote in the opinion for a unanimous panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The judges said they weren’t ruling on whether Twitter itself can exclude users, nor whether an official must allow access to a private account.

But the court said when a public official uses a social media account for public business — as Mr. Trump regularly does — it’s a public forum, and First Amendment protections apply.

That means people who want to comment on Mr. Trump’s postings cannot be banned because they disagree with him. And the judges said that those replies are not government speech, which means the government doesn’t have an interest in policing them.

Mr. Trump sparked the case in 2017 when, angered by some replies to some of his tweets, he moved to block offending users. Once blocked, they were unable to see Mr. Trump’s tweets directly, or to reply to them.

While there are “workarounds,” some of the people blocked said that was too much trouble and they had a right to unfettered access to Mr. Trump’s account.

Seven of them sued in a case argued by the Knight First Amendment Institute.

“A very big win,” tweeted Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s executive director.

The Justice Department said it was pondering next steps. It could seek a rehearing from the whole 2nd Circuit or ask the Supreme Court to step in.

That prospect thrilled one of the seven Trump critics who had been blocked and then sued. “Take us to the Supreme Court if you dare,” Eugene Gu said.

The importance of being on Mr. Trump’s Twitter stream cannot be overstated.

His account boasts 61.8 million followers. The seven plaintiffs who were blocked combine for about one-thousandth of 1% of that reach.

Mr. Gu said being part of a Twitter comment stream like that is where important conversations are taking place.

“It’s free speech from a fire hose,” he said. “I reply to Trump because I believe in reasoned dialogue based on facts and evidence over sound bites and ideology. Whether my ideas are good or bad, I see feedback from both liberals and conservatives — the opposite of an echo chamber.”

Mr. Trump’s lawyers had argued that blocking the users wasn’t an official government action, saying that his Twitter account was his own speech and nobody else had a First Amendment right to say something as part of the stream of posts and replies to one of his tweets.

He also argued that if the account is considered a government forum, then the speech is that of the government, not of individuals.

The judges rejected those arguments, saying once Mr. Trump “has chosen a platform and opened up its interactive space to millions of users and participants, he may not selectively exclude those whose views he disagrees with.”

The 2nd Circuit’s ruling upheld a district judge’s decision last year.

Mr. Trump had unblocked the accounts in question after that ruling.

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