President Donald Trump’s practice of blocking critics who follow and comment on his Twitter posts is an unconstitutional effort to suppress dissent, a lawsuit filed Tuesday by a First Amendment advocacy group in Manhattan federal court alleges.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of seven Twitter users blocked by Trump and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said Trump’s extensive use of tweets had turned his account into a “public forum” and couldn’t restrict access based on other users’ viewpoints.
“It imposes an unconstitutional restriction on their participation in a designated public forum,” the suit said. “It imposes an unconstitutional restriction on their right to access statements . . . available to the public at large. It also imposes an unconstitutional restriction on their right to petition the government for redress of grievances.”
Trump’s account, @realDonaldTrump, was started in 2009 and now has more than 33 million followers who receive Trump’s tweets in their own accounts. His tweets can be accessed by anyone except for those he blocks.
In addition to Trump, the lawsuit named press secretary Sean Spicer and social media director Dan Scavino. The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
One of the plaintiffs in the case was Rebecca Buckwalter, a Washington, D.C. writer, who responded to a June 6 tweet in which Trump said he would never have won the White House if he had relied on the “Fake News” media. She was blocked after commenting, “To be fair you didn’t win the WH: Russia won it for you.”
Another plaintiff was identified as Brandon Neely, a Houston police officer. He was blocked after responding to a Trump tweet on June 17 that lauded the opening of a new coal mine in Pennsylvania. “Congrats and now black lung won’t be covered under #TrumpCare,” Neely wrote.
The Knight Center said it was not blocked by Trump, but joined the suit because it follows Trump’s account and was prevented from accessing the speech of people who were blocked.
Legal experts said that while the effort to cast Trump’s Twitter account as a “public forum” is new, the basic law behind the suit — that the government can’t open public spaces to supportive groups but not opponents on a discriminatory basis — is well established.
“The president very likely has created a public forum, and invited people to participate,” said Robert Corn-Revere, a First Amendment expert who practices at Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, D.C. “When a president does it he doesn’t just get to say ‘You’re fired.’ ”