When Can the Government Block Social Media Followers? Supreme Court to Consider.

Supreme Court Grapples with First Amendment Implication of Social Media Blocks

Supreme Court Grapples with First Amendment Implication of Social Media Blocks

The Intersection between the First Amendment and the Internet

The US Supreme Court recently heard arguments on whether government officials can block followers on social media, highlighting the intersection between the First Amendment and the internet. Although the justices are not necessarily active on social media platforms like Facebook, they understand that their opinion will shape how public officials use their accounts to communicate with voters and constituents from the local level to the White House.

First Amendment Implications for Public Officials and Followers

Several justices noted that there are First Amendment implications for both public officials who have the right to maintain personal accounts and followers who may be blocked because their views differ from that of the official. Justice Elena Kagan noted the complexity of the case, saying that First Amendment interests are “all over the place.”

Determining What Constitutes State Action on Social Media Platforms

One of the main issues the Supreme Court is grappling with is what kind of posts can trigger First Amendment concerns and limit an official’s ability to discriminate based on a commentator’s viewpoint. It remains to be seen if a government official’s personal account on a social media platform can be classified as state action that would trigger constitutional limitations. Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas expressed concern that broadening the definition of government action would “reduce the speech of public officials” in a potentially dangerous way.

Personal versus Professional Interests on Social Media

One of the key challenges for the Supreme Court is drawing the line between an official’s personal and professional interests on social media. Justice Sonia Sotomayor lamented that sometimes personal and professional interests can be too “intertwined.” Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked if a government official could use a social media platform to post information about a road closure, for example, or if that would also trigger constitutional limitations.

Usage of Social Media Platforms as Official Forums for Government Officials

The Supreme Court is considering a case that involves a city manager who converted his Facebook account from private to public so everyone could follow it. The account contained personal details about his life, as well as his work in Port Huron. During the Covid pandemic, he shared Port Huron’s policies on public health measures. However, an individual named Kevin Lindke objected to the Covid policies and posted his criticism, which led to him being blocked. Lawyers for the city manager argued that even though their client was a governmental official, his posts did not constitute state action subject to First Amendment concerns because the social media page was not part of his official duties.

Government Official’s Social Media Accounts as State Action

Another dispute being considered by the Supreme Court concerns two members of California’s Poway Unified School District Board of Trustees. They created public Facebook and Twitter pages to inform constituents of what was happening in the district. However, when two parents began making negative comments critical of the district, the officials blocked them. The parents filed a lawsuit, arguing that the officials’ postings amounted to state action that violated their First Amendment rights. The public officials lost at the federal appeals court level.

The Verdict

The Supreme Court’s decision will have significant consequences on social media use by public officials and potential lawsuits brought by followers who feel their Free Speech rights have been violated. It remains to be seen how the court will draw the line between a public official’s personal and professional interests on social media and how it will define state action on these platforms.

Related topics:

First Amendment Implications
Social Media and Free Speech
Government Officials and Social Media
State Action and Social Media Platforms

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