Supreme Court outlines rules for government officials blocking people on social media

by | Mar 15, 2024

In a decision made on Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that members of the public, under certain circumstances, have the right to sue public officials for blocking them on social media platforms.

The court's unanimous decision establishes that officials can be considered “state actors” when utilizing social media, thereby making them liable to litigation if they block or mute a member of the public.

In the two cases under consideration, the justices ruled that disputes involving a school board member in Southern California and a city manager in Michigan should be remanded to lower courts for the application of the new legal test.

In a ruling by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court acknowledged the challenge in discerning whether speech on social media is official or private due to the varied uses of such accounts.

The court determined that speech can be considered state actions when the official in question “possessed actual authority to speak on the state's behalf” and “purported to exercise that authority.”

Although the officials involved in these cases have relatively low profiles, the ruling will have implications for all public officials who use social media to interact with the public.

During the oral arguments in October, Trump's use of Twitter was frequently cited as the justices deliberated on the practical implications.

The cases brought up the question of whether public officials' posts and other social media activities are considered part of their governmental functions. By ruling that they can be, the court determined that blocking someone from following an official constitutes a government action that could potentially lead to a constitutional claim.

Trump himself faced a lawsuit while he was president, with the courts ruling against him, acknowledging that he frequently used his Twitter account to make official announcements. However, the lawsuit was dismissed as moot once he left office in January 2021.

The California case originated when two members of the Poway Unified School District Board of Trustees, Michelle O'Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane, blocked parents Christopher and Kimberly Garnier from commenting on their Facebook page in 2017. Additionally, O'Connor-Ratcliff prevented Christopher Garnier from responding to her Twitter posts. Zane has since left office.

In 2022, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the couple, affirming a similar decision made by a federal judge in the Southern District of California. The appeals court determined that the elected officials were acting in their official capacities.

The conflict in Michigan arose in early 2020, when an appointed official with a Facebook page identifying him as a “public figure,” shared info about the efforts of the city to address the Covid-19 pandemic. Following resident Kevin Lindke's critical comments regarding the city's response, Freed blocked him.

The court is currently grappling with a range of free speech issues related to social media during its ongoing term, which extends until June.

Source: NBC News



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