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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Local government officials may be barred from blocking Twitter critics

This April 3, 2017, file photo shows U.S. President Donald Trump's Twitter feed on a computer screen in Washington, D.C. (J. David Ake / Associated Press)

Local politicians shouldn’t block someone from a social media account just because they don’t like criticism or disagree with what that person says.

A federal court ruling in a case involving President Donald Trump and his Twitter account could affect state and local officials throughout the country, said legal experts who study cases involving the First Amendment and social media.

U.S. District Judge Naomi Buchwald in Manhattan said it was unconstitutional for Trump to block critics on his Twitter account, although he could “mute” them so he doesn’t have to read their responses to things he tweets. That allows them to see what he writes, and other followers to see their comments.

The decision is in line with other rulings on social media used by public officials in recent years, said Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of the University of Missouri Law School, who has written extensively on social media and free speech issues.

Public officials “should not ban people from a social media account just because you disagree with what they say,” Lidsky said. “Politicians have to be thick-skinned.”

Although the ruling involves the president, and was handed down in New York, it could have nationwide impact because it involves a First Amendment right, she said.

The ruling itself is narrow, said Bob Gomulkiewicz, a law professor at the University of Washington, because it distinguishes between blocking and muting, and between the account of a public official and a private citizen. It involves the public right to have access to the “interactive space” in a public official’s account.

“My sense is that government officials that are using Twitter are actively encouraging participation,” he said.

While Gomulkiewicz said the ruling may be so narrow that it could be applied to Twitter but not all other platforms all circumstances, Lidsky said other precedents already involved Facebook, which had blocking options before Twitter included them.

“It pre-existed Trump,” she said. “He’s definitely using (Twitter) as a forum for his own speech.”

In the Spokane area, state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, blocks some members of the news media from his Twitter account and other legislators have blocked individual journalists in response to disputes over comments.

While the ruling could be applied broadly to public officials, it wouldn’t affect private citizens or celebrities. Political candidate or campaign accounts are more complicated to analyze, Lidsky said, and might have more leeway. Public officials could probably ban obscene language, but they might want to state that policy on their page.

“This precedent will definitely spawn more lawsuits,” she said.