Donald Trump can no longer (constitutionally) block people from his Twitter account, a federal appeals court ruled this month — no matter how much they complain, criticize or insult him.
Because, simply, Trump uses the platform to conduct government business. He uses Twitter to make official announcements and to discuss his political agenda and therefore anyone commenting on his Tweets is protected by the First Amendment. They cannot be excluded from the discussion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, ruled.
It’s perhaps the highest-profile decision, in a slew of court cases all asking, generally the same question: how does the First Amendment apply to online political discussions?
That’s not an easy question to answer — it’s abstract, it’s tough to define and it’s abnormally futuristic. But it’s also an extremely important idea to address, as more and more of America’s political discourse takes place on digital platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. As the technology of communication advances, the laws protecting and upholding free-speech and communication will need to be updated too.
The problem is, these platforms are privately owned businesses. They are not literal “public squares” (although they essentially function as such) and are therefore subject to the censorship of individuals and the businesses that own those platforms.
Which is exactly why, the discussion around social media censorship is heating up.
And, it’s also exactly why this particular issue ended up in the federal appeals court. Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, Tweets like it’s his only responsibility. Sometimes he’ll blast Twitter with a nearly-unintelligible stream of Trump-consciousness (covfefe!), sometimes it’s to badmouth other world leaders (Rocket Man!), and, then, sometimes he uses it to make actual political announcements.
So, the federal appeals court reasoned, when Trump blocks someone from his Twitter profile, he is effectively silencing their digital voice, violating their First Amendment right. Which is not so much a presidential move, as a dictatorial one.
Judge Barrington D. Parker (of the Second Circuit in New York), explained to the New York Times that, despite being awkward and unpleasant, this discussion is an extremely important one to have right now.
“In resolving this appeal, we remind the litigants and the public that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that the best response to disfavored speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less,” Judge Parker wrote.
Even if that speech is coming mostly from haters, critics and malcontents — it’s still speech, it’s still public discourse, it still has a place in the discussion.
This ruling is good news for The People of America. Private social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have already demonstrated that they aren’t afraid to censor content they dislike, disagree with or consider “misleading.” That’s important when it comes to calling out fake news, but it’s also dangerous within the scope of free speech. People are supposed to be allowed to say whatever they want to in this country, and when companies start deciding who to silence (no matter how legit their reasons for doing so) that’s a red flag. A big one.
Because even if their intentions start off good, that is a slippery slope to a precipitous place. Who decides what’s unethical speech? How do they decide that? What are their standards? And how were those chosen?
This decision by the federal appeals court protects The People and it protects our online speech, at least as it pertains to public figures, like Trump, who use social media for official business. It could become a landmark case moving forward, and will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on politicians’ relationships with social media like Twitter.
It also means that you can now say anything you want on Trump’s Twitter page; rabble-rousers and squeaky-wheels can now sling their opinions like buckets of crap without the fear of being blocked or silenced. If you thought that the President’s Twitter feed and the comments therein were vile, already, you’re in for an ugly treat. It’s going to get worse.
But that’s a small price to pay to protect America’s First Amendment rights. Just as Judge Parker put it: when it comes to speech, more freedom is always better than less.