Trump can't block Twitter users from following his account, judge rules

It's a First Amendment issue, and the judge says Twitter is a public forum.

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President Donald Trump can't block Twitter users critical of his policies from following him on the social network, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

Seven Twitter users sued Trump in July after the president blocked them for criticizing or mocking him on the social network. The group argued the practice violates the First Amendment.

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US District Court Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald agreed with the seven, ruling that a public official may not block people from his or her Twitter account in response to the political views the people have expressed, even if that official is the president of the United States.

"We hold that portions of the @realDonaldTrump account -- the 'interactive space' where Twitter users may directly engage with the content of the President's tweets -- are properly analyzed under the 'public forum' doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court, that such space is a designated public forum, and that the blocking of the plaintiffs based on their political speech constitutes viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment," the judge wrote in her ruling (see below).

"In so holding, we reject the defendants' contentions that the First Amendment does not apply in this case and that the President's personal First Amendment interests supersede those of plaintiffs."

The US Justice Department, which represented Trump in the case, said it's disappointed in the ruling and is mulling its options.

"We respectfully disagree with the court's decision and are considering our next steps," Justice Department spokeswoman Kerry Kupec said in a statement.

Lawyers for the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sued the president last year on behalf of the seven blocked users, arguing the action "imposes an unconstitutional restriction on their participation in a designated public forum" and demanding that access to Trump's tweets be reinstated.

The case raised First Amendment issues related to the president's use of Twitter to make prolific and often controversial statements about public policy. The blockages suppress free speech by limiting users' ability to view his tweets and comment on them, the group said in a previous letter seeking to be reinstated as followers of Trump on Twitter.

One of the users blocked by Trump, according to the letter, was Holly O'Reilly, whose @AynRandPaulRand account was blocked in May 2017 after posting a GIF of Pope Francis glancing at Trump with a troubled expression, above which she wrote, "This is pretty much how the whole world sees you."

The letter says that while Trump might have been offended by the post, and others critical of the president, the tweets are a protected form of free speech, and the users shouldn't be punished by the government for their content.

Digital rights advocates applauded the ruling as a victory for First Amendment rights on social media.

"Governmental officials and agencies, big and small, at all levels of government, are using social media to speak to the public and allow the public to speak to them and each other," David Greene, civil liberties director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a statement. "This development has brought democracy closer to the people. But the people's First Amendment rights to see these messages and respond to them must be respected."

The Knight Institute didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

A request for comment sent to a White House media contact email account was returned as undeliverable.

First published May 23 at 10:15 a.m. PT.
Update at 2:15 p.m. PT: Adds Justice Department and EFF statements.

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