The Supreme Court grappled with the question on Tuesday of whether it is constitutional for public officials to prohibit critics from posting on their social media pages. This topic was initially brought up in a case involving former President Donald Trump.
The judges listened to arguments for two cases concerning individuals who were banned from social media accounts owned by school board members in southern California and a city manager in Port Huron, Michigan, located northeast of Detroit, after leaving negative comments.
The court is faced with the challenge of balancing the free speech rights of both public officials and their constituents in a dynamic virtual landscape.
Justice Elena Kagan stated that an increasing amount of our democracy relies on social media, as she spoke for three hours during the arguments.
During the current term, there is a particular emphasis on examining the connection between government and privately-owned digital platforms. Justice Clarence Thomas alluded to future cases when he referred to the significant influence of platforms like Facebook in removing user accounts, calling it “the prominent issue that needs to be addressed.”
In the near future, the court will assess laws passed by Republicans in Florida and Texas that forbid major social media companies from removing posts based on their expressed opinions. The technology companies argue that these laws infringe on their First Amendment rights. These laws demonstrate the belief held by Republicans that these platforms unfairly censor conservative perspectives.
Missouri and Louisiana have raised a challenge against the Biden administration’s actions to address contentious social media content related to COVID-19 and election security. The states claim that the administration has been unlawfully pressuring platforms to censor conservative viewpoints.
The cases on Tuesday explore the widespread use of social media by government officials, but without as much political bias. They bear resemblance to a previous case involving Trump and his choice to block opponents from his personal Twitter account, which is now referred to as X. The Supreme Court dismissed the case when Trump’s term ended.
Trump claimed that his personal ownership of the @realdonaldtrump account, which had over 88 million followers, gave him control over it.
According to Kagan, the president’s Twitter account is heavily involved in government matters, with policy announcements and other important information being shared regularly. Without access to this account, it would be difficult for citizens to fully comprehend the Trump presidency.
The courts in San Francisco and Cincinnati had differing opinions on when personal accounts are considered official. It appeared that the judges were not completely in agreement with either decision.
The judges appeared to reach a consensus that they must establish a definitive legal criterion, however their ultimate decision was uncertain.
Brett Kavanaugh, who is married to a town manager in the suburbs of Washington, stated that it is without a doubt necessary for local officials to have clear direction.
In a case involving the Poway Unified School District Board of Trustees in California, two elected members, Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane, utilized their personal Facebook and Twitter pages to engage with the general public. However, when two parents, Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, left negative comments and responses on the board members’ pages, they were blocked. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals deemed this action a violation of the parents’ freedom of speech. Zane is no longer a member of the school board.
In 2014, James Freed became the city manager of Port Huron. He utilized a Facebook page that he had originally created during his time in college to connect with the community and share updates about his daily activities.
In 2020, Kevin Lindke, a resident, posted multiple comments on the page using three different Facebook profiles. These comments included critiques of the city’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mayor Freed took action by blocking all three of Lindke’s accounts and deleting his comments. Lindke filed a lawsuit, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Freed. They pointed out that Freed’s Facebook page discussed his roles as a father, husband, and city manager.
The Biden administration is supporting the officials and encouraging the court to acknowledge the difference between their private and public lives. The Justice Department stated that in these instances, the government does not manage or run the accounts.
Some of the judges appeared displeased with the approach taken by the administration. Justice Samuel Alito commented, “It seems artificial to base a decision on who owns the Facebook page.”
The American Civil Liberties Union stated that in both cases, the officials engaged in public or state action by excluding opposing followers from their social media profiles, which were presented as an extension of their public office.
During Tuesday’s session, the justices posed several hypothetical questions to the six lawyers who presented their arguments. Justice Amy Coney Barrett even suggested that her law clerk could potentially share official updates from her chambers on social media, but stopped herself before completing the thought.
She stated that it would not be acceptable, addressing the law clerks who are typically present at Supreme Court hearings.
We anticipate receiving rulings for O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier (22-324) and Lindke v. Freed (22-611) by the beginning of summer.