This week, a federal court ruled on a free speech issue in a way that could have implications for President Donald Trump's use of social media. Namely, the ruling suggests, as some legal observers have argued, that it might be illegal for Trump to block people on Twitter, a habit some of the president's social media critics have run into recent months.
Although former president Barack Obama was the first commander-in-chief to have a Twitter account, it's hard to dispute that Trump, by relative standards, is running a social media presidency. This week, for instance, he simultaneously dismissed his former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and welcomed in his replacement, former general and DHS secretary John Kelly, in a string of just three tweets. No president has ever generated so much controversy from the confines of their Twitter feed, or made so many headlines.
Which means that who can and can't follow him, and see his tweets as they roll in, could actually be important in a real-world sense. The ruling, by U.S. District Judge James Cacheris, was not actually about Trump or his Twitter, to be clear. But the reasoning behind the ruling could prove to be relevant.
Basically, Catcheris ruled that the chair of Virginia's Loudon County Board of Supervisors, Phyllis J. Randall, improperly violated freedom of speech rights by temporarily blocking a constituent, identified as Brian C. Davison, from commenting on her Facebook page at a time when she was explicitly fielding input from county residents.
According to the ruling, Randall posted a message to her Facebook inviting people to chime in, saying she "really want[s] to hear from ANY Loudoun citizen on ANY issue." By extending that offer to the public, then blocking Davison when he complained of what he believed to be corruption on the Loudon school board, Cacheris found that Randall had engaged in "viewpoint discrimination."
This ruling doesn't provide an exact parallel to Trump's behaviors on Twitter, for a couple reasons. First of all, nowhere on Trump's Twitter bio does he explicitly invite comments from the American public. And moreover, as Mark Joseph Stern of Slate notes, he actually has two Twitter accounts to his name, both a personal one (@realdonaldtrump) and an official one (@POTUS). And it's unclear what Trump's intended use for each one is ― whether, in other words, his personal account is intended to serve as a forum with the public.
In practical terms, however, it's undeniable that Trump's personal account makes more news than the official one. By comparison, the official @POTUS account is typical, unremarkable, and restrained, while his personal account has been used to threaten hostile foreign powers, announce cabinet-level hirings and firings, and lash out at critics. In July, he even blocked VoteVets, a veteran's organization.
In any case, you can expect to hear more about whether Trump blocking people on Twitter is legal in the weeks and months to come, because there's currently a lawsuit being brought against him over it. And while it's unclear how it might turn out, Cacheris' ruling could prove to be a relevant piece of precedent.