Sorry Politicians, You Can't Block Critics on Twitter

Courts have ruled that access to public figures on social media is a constitutional right.
by | September 2018
Screenshot of Donald Trump's Twitter
(AP)

Anyone in public life expects criticism. But sometimes it gets personal. The temptation in those situations is strong to shut up the naysayers, but doing so might be against the law.

In May, a judge ruled that President Trump could not block people from following him on Twitter. It was the most prominent in a series of rulings finding that access to public figures on social media is a constitutional right. “The suppression of critical commentary regarding elected officials is the quintessential form of viewpoint discrimination against which the First Amendment guards,” Judge James Cacheris wrote in a case involving a supervisor in Fairfax County, Va.

Politicians often claim that their social media accounts are personal, not public property. But public officials also use these same accounts to conduct official business or make announcements. Some politicians argue that they’re simply clamping down on trolls who use offensive language. “Their level of discourse sunk to a level that even as an elected official I felt I shouldn’t have to tolerate,” David Lim, a former mayor of San Mateo, Calif., told the San Francisco Chronicle. “If you walk into my office and start yelling at me, I can walk out of the office.”

But public officials can’t block people preemptively from their offices. In effect, by blocking them on social media, that’s what they’re doing. “The internet, particularly social media, is where so much of our public discourse is happening these days,” says Thomas Kadri, a resident fellow at the Yale Information Society Project.

Some officials silence not only hostile malcontents but also reporters who’ve written less-than-flattering articles about them. Alondra Cano, a member of the Minneapolis City Council, blocked two Star Tribune reporters after they wrote about her less-than-perfect attendance record. Washington state Sen. Michael Baumgartner blocked a Seattle Times reporter for asking the senator about his policy on blocking people. “I don’t think they should block anybody unless they’re being threatening or particularly nasty,” says Matt Szafranski, editor of the political blog Western Mass Politics & Insight, who’s been blocked from official Springfield accounts. “I’m known for being a critic of the administration in the city, but I don’t think of myself as being particularly unfair.”

The ACLU has sent letters to lawmakers around the country warning them about the need to keep their accounts open to the public. They must accept that First Amendment rights are protected on social media -- not just free speech, but the right to petition to redress grievances. “Obviously, you can’t go and harass or threaten your local agency, but you do have free rein otherwise to make your point,” says Angela Greben, who monitors government accounts that block people.

Technology allows insulted public officials the ability to mute or unfollow harassers, protecting them from seeing hostile messages but letting those individuals see the statements they put out. But most officials recognize that taking some knocks comes with the job. “If you don’t want to be described as scum,” Greben writes on her blog, “then maybe you shouldn’t run for political office.”