The Justice Department warned late Friday in a filing in Manhattan federal court that a lawsuit to prevent President Donald Trump from blocking some followers of his tweets would be “unprecedented” and take the courts “deep into uncharted waters.”
The letter to U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald marked the government’s first official response to a lawsuit filed last month that claims Trump’s tweets are governmental acts and is seeking an injunction to prevent him from blocking critics who reply with attacks.
“It would send the First Amendment deep into uncharted waters to hold that a president’s choices about whom to follow, and whom to block, on Twitter — a privately run website that, as a central feature of its social-media platform, enables all users to block particular individuals from viewing posts — violate the Constitution,” the Justice Department said.
The lawsuit, filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf of a half-dozen blocked Twitter users, said the president was using it to make official pronouncements and compared his blocking of critics to restricting access to a public forum based on people’s beliefs.
Earlier this week, the plaintiffs said they wanted to expedite the case to seek a preliminary injunction against Trump, his social media director and his press secretary, who administer the account, and asked Buchwald for a conference.
The Justice Department said the claim was sufficiently unusual that the plaintiffs did not have a “substantial likelihood of success” when it is fully litigated, one of the requirements for a preliminary injunction.
“Such a novel holding would cast doubt on the ability of government officials to direct their communications to particular audiences,” the government said, and to enjoin Trump in his performance of a discretionary act would violate separation of powers.
The government also said the plaintiffs could not demonstrate they are suffering “irreparable injury” from the status quo, another requirement for a preliminary injunction, because even if their accounts are blocked from posting replies, they can still view Trump’s tweets as “public” users.
“Imposing a preliminary injunction would raise profound separation-of-powers concerns by intruding directly into the President’s chosen means of communicating to millions of Americans,” the government said.
Ujala Sehgal, a spokeswoman for the Knight institute, on Saturday disputed the Justice Department’s claims. “The notion that suppressing dissent on Twitter is part of the president’s official duties is absurd,” she said.
“The president and his aides are bound by the First Amendment just like other public officials,” she argued, “and an injunction preventing them from censoring their critics on social media wouldn’t impede the president from carrying out his actual constitutional duties.”