US court rules Trump cannot block critics on Twitter

Three-judge panel says Trump can't use the 'blocking' function on Twitter to control who can engage with his account.

    The US President Donald Trump''s Twitter feed is shown on a computer screen [File: Jenny Kane/AP Photo]
    The US President Donald Trump''s Twitter feed is shown on a computer screen [File: Jenny Kane/AP Photo]

    US President Donald Trump violated the Constitution by blocking people whose views he disliked from his Twitter account, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.

    In a 3-0 decision, the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said the First Amendment forbids Trump from using Twitter's "blocking" function to limit who can engage with his account, which has 61.8 million followers.

    "The First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilises a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees," Circuit Judge Barrington D Parker wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel.

    "The irony in all of this is that we write at a time in the history of this nation when the conduct of our government and its officials is subject to wide-open, robust debate," he added, citing several Supreme Court examples. 

    A spokeswoman for the United States Department of Justice said officials were "disappointed" with Tuesday's decision. She added that the department is "exploring possible next steps". 

    The White House did not immediately comment on the case. White House social media director Dan Scavino is also a defendant. Twitter had no immediate comment.

    'All the trappings of official state-run account'

    Trump has made his @RealDonaldTrump account a central and controversial part of his presidency, using it to promote his agenda and to attack critics. 

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    His use of the blocking function was challenged by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, as well as seven Twitter users he had blocked.

    "The decision will help ensure the integrity and vitality of digital spaces that are increasingly important to our democracy," Jameel Jaffer, the Knight institute's executive director, said in a statement.

    Tuesday's decision upheld a May 2018 ruling by US District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in Manhattan, which prompted Trump to unblock some accounts.

    The Justice Department had called her ruling "fundamentally misconceived", saying Trump used Twitter to express his views, not to offer a public forum for discussion.

    Parker, however, said Trump's account bears "all the trappings of an official, state-run account" and is "one of the White House's main vehicles for conducting official business".

    He said Trump and his aides have characterised the president's tweets as official statements, and that even the National Archives views the tweets as official records. 

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    Parker also wrote that public debate, "as uncomfortable and as unpleasant as it frequently may be, is nonetheless a good thing. We remind the litigants and the public that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that the best response to disfavoured speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less."

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    SOURCE: News agencies