Supreme Court to Examine Public Officials’ Social Media Blocking and First Amendment Rights

KEY TAKEAWAYS
The US Supreme Court will consider whether government officials can block their critics on social media platforms without violating the First Amendment's free speech protections in response to two separate cases.
The first case involves two members of the Poway Unified School District in California who blocked parents Christopher and Kimberly Garnier from their Facebook and Twitter accounts after the couple made critical posts about issues such as race and school finances.
The second case in Michigan involves Port Huron resident Kevin Lindke who sued City Manager James Freed after he was blocked from Freed's public Facebook page following critical posts about the local government's COVID-19 response.
Lower courts have issued divergent rulings on these cases, and the Supreme Court's upcoming decision will attempt to resolve the divide among lower courts on whether public officials' social media accounts can be considered private or governmental activity and whether blocking critics on these platforms violates the First Amendment.
The decision is important as more public officials use social media to communicate with constituents about official business, and the role of these platforms in hosting public debate and facilitating free expression has become increasingly significant.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether government officials can block their critics on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter without violating the First Amendment’s free speech protections.

The decision comes in response to appeals from two separate cases involving public officials who blocked individuals on social media.

California School Board Case

In California, two members of the Poway Unified School District, Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane, blocked parents Christopher and Kimberly Garnier from their Facebook and Twitter accounts after the couple made numerous critical posts about issues such as race and school finances.

The Garniers sued the school board members, claiming their free speech rights were violated.

According to the Garniers’ court filings, both O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane had public Facebook pages identifying them as government officials, and O’Connor-Ratcliff’s Twitter profile also identified her as a government official.

Lower courts ruled in favor of the parents, stating that the school board members had presented their social media accounts as public channels of communication.

Michigan City Manager Case

In a separate case in Michigan, Port Huron resident Kevin Lindke sued City Manager James Freed after he was blocked from Freed’s public Facebook page following critical posts about the local government’s COVID-19 response.

Freed’s account identified him as a public figure and included information about city programs and policies.

Lower courts ruled in favor of Freed, finding that he was not acting in his official capacity when he blocked Lindke from his Facebook page.

The divergent outcomes in these cases highlight a divide among lower courts that the Supreme Court will now attempt to resolve.

The Supreme Court has faced similar First Amendment issues in the past. In 2021, a legal dispute arose over former President Donald Trump’s effort to block critics from his Twitter account.

Previous Ruling on Trump’s Twitter Account

The Supreme Court has faced similar First Amendment issues in the past. In 2021, a legal dispute arose over former President Donald Trump’s effort to block critics from his Twitter account.

However, the justices ultimately decided the case was moot after Trump left office, leaving the question of whether public officials can block critics on social media without violating free speech rights unresolved.

Growing Importance of Social Media in Public Debate

As more public officials use social media to communicate with constituents about official business, the role of these platforms in hosting public debate and facilitating free expression has become increasingly significant.

The Supreme Court’s upcoming decision will determine whether public officials’ social media accounts can be considered private or governmental activity and whether blocking critics on these platforms violates the First Amendment.

Craig Miller

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