Supreme Court takes up legal spat over public officials blocking people on social media

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to decide whether people can sue public officials who block them on social media – a legal question left open in a previous case involving former President Donald Trump’s Twitter account.

The court considered two separate cases involving much less publicized figures – two members of the Poway Unified School District board of trustees in Southern California and the city manager of Port Huron, Michigan. But the legal dispute is the same: Can blocking someone on social media result in a violation of free speech under the Constitution’s First Amendment?

It’s a recurring question at all levels of government as elected officials increasingly use social media to interact with voters. The Supreme Court’s decision will have a broad impact in guiding how lower courts handle these cases.

In the case of California, board members Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and TJ Zane in 2017 blocked Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, parents of school district students, from commenting on their Facebook pages, and in the case of O’Connor-Ratcliff, responded to his Twitter posts. Zane has since left office.

The Garniers’ frequent comments were neither profane nor violent, but repetitive and lengthy, the San Francisco-based 9th United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2022 decision in favor of the couple, which upheld a similar ruling by a federal judge in the Southern District of California.

The appeals court concluded that the elected officials were acting within the scope of their official duties and that the social media accounts amounted to a public forum. The court also rejected officials’ argument that their social media pages were not official channels for members of the public to communicate with the government.

The Michigan case arose in March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. City Manager James Freed posted on his Facebook page, which described him as a “public figure,” about the city’s efforts to address the public health crisis.

One resident, Kevin Lindke, posted comments criticizing the city’s response, prompting Freed to block it.

Freed says the Facebook page, which is no longer active, was a personal page. He used it to share photos of his family and comment on his daily activities, he added.

In a June 2022 ruling, the 6th United States Circuit Court of Appeals, affirming a lower court ruling, said Freed was not acting in his official capacity and therefore his activity on Facebook was not an actionable “state action”.

The Supreme Court in 2021 chased the similar lawsuit filed against Trump because by then he had left office and the case was moot, meaning the legal issue remained unresolved. At that time, Twitter had also banned Trump’s account, although the company’s new owner, Elon Musk, has since reverse course. In Trump’s case, the courts ruled against the president, noting that he often used his Twitter account to make official announcements.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas wrote at the time that the case underscored that “applying old doctrines to new digital platforms is rarely straightforward.” While in some ways Twitter might be considered a public forum, in other ways it’s a private space over which the company has broad power, Thomas noted, noting his decision to ban Trump.

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