Mon. Apr 22nd, 2024

In shadow of Trump tweets, Supreme Court outlines when officials can be sued for social media use

By 37ci3 Mar15,2024

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Friday that members of the public can sue government officials for blocking them on social media platforms in some cases, deciding several cases amid former President Donald Trump’s controversial and colorful use of Twitter.

The court ruled unanimously that officials can be considered “state actors” when using social media and therefore face lawsuits if they block or silence a member of the public.

In two cases before the court, they ruled that disputes involving a school board member in Southern California and a city manager in Michigan should be sent to lower courts to apply the new legal test.

In a ruling written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court acknowledged that “it can be difficult to distinguish whether speech is official or private” because of how social media accounts are used.

The court held that social media conduct can be considered state action when the official in question “has actual authority to speak on behalf of the state” and “purports to exercise that authority.”

Although the officials in both cases have a low profile, the decision will apply to all government officials who use social media to communicate with the public.

During the month of October verbal argumentTrump’s use of Twitter — before it was renamed — was often mentioned as the justices considered the practical implications.

The cases have raised questions about whether public officials’ posts and other social media activities are part of their government functions. Ruling that it could, the court found that preventing someone from following an officer constituted government action that could give rise to a constitutional claim.

But the court made clear that conditions must be met for the lawsuit to move forward, with Barrett noting that government officials are also “private citizens with their own constitutional rights.”

He added that determining whether a lawsuit can proceed is based on the nature of the behavior in question, not just whether the person is a public official.

Factors such as whether the Barrett account is officially registered and whether the official is using his legal authority to make the official announcement may be considered.

“In some cases, the content and function of the post can slam dunk the plaintiff’s argument,” he said.

Trump himself was sued when he was president, the courts ruled against him, noting that he often used his Twitter account to make official statements. But that claim was controversially dropped after he left office in January 2021. At the time, Twitter canceled Trump’s account, although the company’s new owner, Elon Musk reverse course as part of an overhaul that included renaming the site. In other disputes, the courts have come to different conclusions.

The California case arose after two members of the Poway Unified School District Board of Trustees, Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliffe and T.Jane’s parents, Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, blocked comments on their Facebook page in 2017. O’Connor-Ratcliffe also blocked Christopher. Garnier declined to respond to Twitter posts. Zane has since stepped down.

In 2022, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled for the couple, upholding a similar ruling by a federal judge in the Southern District of California. The appellate court concluded that the elected officials performed their duties.

The controversy in Michigan began in March 2020 when Port Huron City Manager James Fried, an appointed official who described himself as a “public figure” posted on his Facebook page about the city’s efforts to combat the Covid pandemic. After resident Kevin Lindke posted comments criticizing the city’s response, Freed blocked him.

Freed maintained that the Facebook page, which is no longer active, was a personal page where he shared pictures of his family and commented on their daily activities. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling, agreeing in June 2022 that Freed was not acting in an official capacity and that his Facebook activities therefore did not constitute government action.

Freed’s page differed slightly from the ones discussed in the school board case because it contained more personal content and was less clear about whether it was an official page.

The court wrestles with a whole series free speech issues related to social media during the current term, which runs until June.

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By 37ci3

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