President Trump and other elected officials cannot block out dissenting opinions on social media according to a recently reported ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. The ruling follows an appeal filed by President Donald Trump late last year after initial proceedings reached a similar conclusion — stemming from the President's decision to block the plaintiffs in the case from viewing his public presidential profile on Twitter.
A summary of the decision provided by Circuit Judge Barrington D. Parker concludes that blocking followers and fellow users on 'social media' is not a privilege granted by the First Amendment. In particular, excluding members of the public from an 'otherwise open' dialogue on the internet with the fact that they expressed differing views as the reason is not a protected right for public officials where the account in question is used 'official purposes'.
The new public forum
The ruling means that barring any intervention from the privately-owned social media company in question, elected officials and others handling similar matters of public interest cannot silence opposing views in online discussions.
Ironically, the ruling comes following waves of claims made by public officials in the U.S. suggesting that some public officials — including President Trump's supporters from within the Republican party — have been "shadow banned" or otherwise silenced by social media platforms.
Those claims have been leveled in equal measure against Facebook and Twitter as well as other technology giants with a level of influence over public opinion and perspective, such as search giant Google.
Judge Parker further clarified that the ruling does not pertain to the rights of private companies to oversee and manage the content shared on their respective platforms.
While the ruling does not conclude that social media accounts that are entirely private and held by public officials can't block users as they please, it doesn't say anything at all about what social media companies can or cannot do. More succinctly, the court ruled that it doesn't "consider or decide" whether any private social media company is bound by the First Amendment when "policing" their platform — whether online or in applications.
In short, the court has found that while it is a private company running the platform, the accounts themselves serve as a public forum for debate and discussion.
For maximum effect, apply new Twitter policies
The decision not only limits how elected or otherwise public officials can include or exclude participants in online discussions taking place through official accounts. It seems to go further by freeing up Twitter, Facebook, and others, to enforce anti-abuse policies and other terms of service with regard to public officials.
Perhaps most pertinently, that ruling comes just as Twitter is beginning to make adjustments to its policies that consequently appear to fall in line with the court's conclusion. As a result of those changes, unveiled late last June, Twitter is now placing Tweets that violate key policies centered around the promotion of violence and hate speech behind disclaimers. Those will operate similarly to sensitive content warnings already used to block out some content in users' feeds.
Coinciding with that, those tweets will no longer be promoted or show so prominently online either, limiting their reach. So the tweets will no longer be immediately visible to provide offense to those who want to avoid them but will still be available for public consumption.