Word got out a few weeks ago that several of Donald Trump’s blocked Twitter users were taking him to court. While this seems crazy at first, it might actually hold water, thanks to the provisions of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
In a nutshell, the official suit papers claim that Trump’s Twitter account has become such an important vessel for official White House press releases that it would be downright illegal to deny any citizen access. The plaintiffs argue that the First Amendment guarantees not only the freedom of the press but also the citizen’s right to be informed via the press. By blocking users, Trump is denying them access to both provisions; they can’t freely respond to the government or get information about public policy.
The prosecution’s measure of success is actually pretty simple. They are asking the court to declare Trump’s actions unconstitutional and take measures to make sure that no other accounts get blocked “on the basis of viewpoint”. Beyond the repayment of legal fees, they aren’t asking for any money or compensation.
This argument seems pretty straightforward and the requests are reasonable, but future debates on the topic will likely be heated and controversial. That’s because, when the American Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they didn’t exactly include Twitter. And even in their attempt to create a living document, they would never have thought that something even remotely like Twitter or social media as a whole would exist.
That’s why, in recent years, technology has presented a huge challenge to the American court system. With the world’s oldest Constitution, the United States lacks direction when dealing with modern technology issues.
One of the first notable cases dealing with social media was Bradley v. State in 2012 when Facebook profile pictures were the main evidence that indicated an armed robbery subject. Since then, technology-based court cases have only gotten more complicated, with issues like Alexa recordings, police brutality body cameras, and sex trafficking on online bidding sites have drawn national attention to the court’s indecision on technology.
Instead of digging deep into the Constitution, a lot of these cases rely on precedent. This Twitter case is no exception; key Supreme Court decisions of the past are the crutch that this present case leans on. The recent Supreme Court case of Packingham v. North Carolina, for example, is cited in the first few sentences of the lawsuit as evidence that social media is one of the “most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard”. Later on, the paper gets more specific and cites Hawaii v. Trump, which decided that a tweet could be used as an official source of public policy.
Court cases aren’t the only thing giving this Twitter spat legitimacy. The paper also cites 43 more reasons why Trump can’t block Twitter users, including the arguments that Twitter has become a “digital town hall” (45) and that Trump’s account is “accessible to the public at large” except for those whom he has blocked (38).
The most interesting argument of the whole debate is that the plaintiffs are all regular people; not one party in the lawsuit has any special ties to Trump. They are legal analysts, sociology professors, surgeons, and songwriters, not politicians or public enemies.
This “normal-ness” proves one point that will be incredibly powerful for the prosecution–Trump’s blocking habits are about policy, not personality. He’s not blocking trolls, people who threaten him, or real-life enemies. Instead, every account that’s filing suit is a verified account attached to a legitimate, intelligent person. And according to the First Amendment, blocking the opinions of legitimate, intelligent people is unconstitutional–even when it’s on a screen.