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Commentary: You Have a First Amendment Right to Follow Trump on Twitter

Posted on Monday 9/9/2019
Roy Gutterman

You Have a First Amendment Right to Follow Trump on Twitter

By Professor Roy Gutterman

(Re-published from syracuse.com | Sept. 5, 2019) President Donald Trump and firebrand Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be polar opposites on the political spectrum, but they have one thing in common: They both blocked critics from their Twitter accounts.

Both politicians employ social media as vital components to their modern political communications machines. Trump’s Twitter footprint totals nearly 64 million followers, while AOC, as she is colloquially known, has more than 5 million followers. In the past couple years, both blocked followers from their social media accounts -- Trump because he does not like his critics, and AOC because she says some of her critics were harassing her.

Either way, both are violating the First Amendment rights of citizens who want to receive information about public policy issues through the public officials’ public social media accounts.

Citizens and the institutional press sometimes decry the president’s nearly exclusive use of Twitter as a means of communicating with the public -- floating policy initiatives, flinging vitriol at opponents, conducting foreign policy and even firing cabinet members. Trump’s knee-jerk tweets, which sometimes delve into insulting opponents and critics, and disseminating half-baked policy initiatives, nevertheless make news and inform the public.

The president’s Twitter feed also has opened the door to an important First Amendment challenge.

After Trump – either at the behest of the president himself or communications staffers who also manage the account – blocked several critics from the Twitter feed, a group of seven represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sued him in federal court in New York. A similar case emerged earlier this year in North Carolina after a county official blocked a user from her Facebook page.

Social media has empowered politicians, particularly this president, who has regularly expressed open hostility toward individual reporters and the press as an institution. In November 2018, CNN’s Jim Acosta sued the White House because his “hard pass” was revoked. It took a federal court to reinstate Acosta’s access. Just a few days ago, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., reinstated the press pass for another reporter, Playboy’s Brian Karem, who had his press pass revoked after a Rose Garden confrontation with former White House aide Sebastian Gorka.

The Supreme Court’s Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote that it seemed perfectly logical for someone to want to silence an opponent or critic. But that rhetorical flourish could not have envisioned the modern world of social media. Or perhaps, Holmes could envision a marketplace of ideas where speakers – critics, opponents and ideological enemies – would exchange dialogue and even vitriolic rhetoric in such a place ...

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