Even after being sworn in, President Donald Trump has continued to use his personal Twitter account, @readDonaldTrump, to make policy statements, air his conspiracy theories, attack the media and public figures, or to conduct very public diplomacy with world leaders.
But since becoming president, Trump, or those who run his account, has also shown a prickly propensity to block anyone who dares tweet a critical remark at the account. Now that practice may face a legal challenge.
Lawyers at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University have filed a complaint in a U.S. district court in New York against the president, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and White House social media director Daniel Scavino, arguing that such blocking constitutes a violation of the First Amendment.
“Because of the way the President and his aides use the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account, the account is a public forum under the First Amendment,” reads the complaint, filed on July 11. “The President’s advisors have stated that tweets from @realDonaldTrump are ‘official statements,’ and they have been treated as such by politicians, world leaders, the National Archive and Records Administration, and federal courts,” the complaint argues.
Since the Twitter account is used for official government communication, blocking Twitter users deprives them of First Amendment rights, according to the complaint.
Plaintiffs include Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland; Eugene Gu, a surgery resident at Vanderbilt University Medical Center; and Brandon Neely, a police officer. These plaintiffs operate verified Twitter accounts that have been blocked by @realDonaldTrump, meaning they are no longer able to reply to tweets by @realDonaldTrump and face difficulty in viewing or participating in discussion threads involving those tweets.
The plaintiffs were blocked after they replied to tweets by @realDonaldTrump, expressing criticism of the tweet or the president himself. On June 18, Gu replied to a tweet by Trump’s account, writing, “Covfefe: The same guy who doesn’t proofread his Twitter handles the nuclear button.” Gu’s tweet was retweeted hundreds of times, according to the filed complaint; about two hours later Gu saw that his account, @eugenegu, had been blocked.
This is the first legal challenge against Trump for blocking Twitter users, said Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute. “I think our argument is strong.”
The complaint may put Trump and his lawyers in a bind. One possible defense would be to claim that Trump’s @realDonaldTrump Twitter account is a personal account — it was created long before he became president — and thus blocking another Twitter account does not constitute a government act.
But if it is determined to be a personal account, it would seem to lose its official protections, and could become vulnerable to libel lawsuits. And Trump has tweeted unsubstantiated accusations against numerous people, including most recently former FBI director James Comey.
Trump — or more specifically, @realDonaldTrump — can’t have it both ways.