U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court will decide when public officials can block people from personal social media accounts

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday accepted two cases that consider whether public officials may violate the First Amendment when they block people from personal social media accounts that discuss their government roles.

The Supreme Court will hear cases involving two Southern California school board officials who blocked two frequent critics and a Michigan city manager who blocked a commenter who criticized the city’s COVID-19 response.

SCOTUSblog, the Washington Post, Law.com and the New York Times have coverage; the cert petitions are here and here.

A similar case had challenged then-President Donald Trump’s blocking of critics on Twitter, which led the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New York to hold in July 2019 that Trump’s account served a public function, and blocking critics was unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. The Supreme Court vacated the 2nd Circuit decision as moot, however, after Trump left office and he was blocked by Twitter.

The school board case involved Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane, who used Facebook and Twitter to communicate about their campaigns and then their jobs on the Poway Unified School District’s board of trustees in California. They created their accounts, however, “without any direction, funding, support or other involvement by the district,” according to the cert petition.

O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane blocked parents Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, who “spammed” the school board members’ posts “with repetitive comments and replies,” according to the cert petition.

The 9th Circuit at San Francisco held that blocking the critics was state action that violated the First Amendment.

In the other case, Port Huron, Michigan, city manager James Freed used his Facebook page to communicate about city programs, policies and developmental initiatives. But he also posted pictures of his family, his dog and his home improvement projects, as well as passages of scripture. He blocked Kevin Lindke, who commented on a photo of the mayor ordering takeout. Lindke said city residents were suffering, while city leaders were eating at a “pricey” restaurant.

The 6th Circuit at Cincinnati ruled that Freed was not performing a duty of his office and was not engaging in state action when he blocked Lindke and deleted his posts.

The cases are O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier and Lindke v. Freed.

The SCOTUSblog case pages are here and here.

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