Supreme Court to Determine if Officials can Block Users on Social Media
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear two cases that will have implications for the ability of public officials to block critics on their personal social media pages. The case echoes that of X, which involved former-President, Donald Trump’s blocking of Twitter critics. The first case involves Kevin Lindke, who filed a lawsuit against city manager James Freed, after he was blocked from Freed’s personal Facebook page in Port Huron, Michigan. The second case involving two school board members in Poway, California who contend their Facebook pages are personal and not open to public comments. The Supreme Court will analyze these cases and issue a decision by summer.
The Port Huron Case
Kevin Lindke is a frequent critic of the Port Huron, Michigan government and has filed a suit against City Manager James Freed. Lindke tapped into Freed’s Facebook page, a place where he announced policy directives and issued press statements, to post comments related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Freed blocked Lindke, stating that while Lindke was not an elected official, his aggressive posts compelled him to act to protect his personal page from abusive comments. Lindke, on the other hand, insists he was prevented from commenting as his First Amendment rights were restricted. Lindke challenges Freed’s action, maintaining that he was barred from commenting on a government Facebook page, resulting in an ongoing issue.
The Issue at Stake in the Supreme Court
Most appeals courts have ruled that when public officials create an online platform for public discourse, the First Amendment’s freedom of speech prevents those officials from denying comments from their critics. In Poway, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reasons that social media pages tied to elected officials’ campaigns are considered personal if posts are not considered official. In Port Huron, The Sixth U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Freed’s Facebook page was personal, and his job title did not authorize him to maintain it, decision with which Lindke is in contention.
Municipal Lawyers Association Proposes Clear Guidelines
Local governments implore the Supreme Court to offer a clear legislative framework that defines the rules and regulations regarding personal and government accounts, to prevent costly litigation for local officials. According to Amanda Karras, general counsel of the International Municipal Lawyers Association, the “authority test” states that the local government must own the social media account, authorize its creation and gauge whether it makes use of government resources.
Free Speech v Personal Privacy
The case is significant as it raises questions about the limitations of free speech. The outcome will set a precedent for public officials who seek to control interactions on their personal accounts and whether elected officials have the right to add boundaries to conversations on such platforms. Allon Kedem, Lindke’s attorney, argues that public officials must be prepared for criticism on public online platforms, and that “trappings of the office” cannot be used as an excuse to suppress critics.
While the issues raised in the Port Huron case resemble those involving X, there are key differences. The Supreme Court’s verdict on these contentious matters is eagerly awaited by both supporters and opponents. A decision could pave the way for more clarity, greater transparency, and more efficient use of public platforms. The outcome will assist local authorities to determine when boundaries have been transgressed and whether free speech must end, and personal privacy must begin. While the outcome will not be known until summer, it is a case worth watching, as it could have significant implications for how public officials relate to their constituents on online platforms.
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