US Politicians who block people on social media may be breaking the law – where does that leave Donald Trump?
Social media enriches millions of lives – most obviously by connecting long-lost friends and relatives. But there’s another simple delight of the medium: being able to instantly remove awful people from your life with one click. There’s just no substitute for the instant gratification of being able to instantly silence whiny, abusive or otherwise tedious people at the touch of a button.
So pity American politicians, who may just have had that simple pleasure taken away from them. Granted, this is only the opinion of one federal court in Virginia, but it could have a knock-on effect which eventually reaches the White House.
The case concerns Phyllis Randall, chairwoman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, who blocked a constituent on Facebook after he accused the Loudoun school board of corruption in a reply to a post asking citizens for feedback.
Despite the ban only being temporary, Judge James Cacheris ruled that Randall had violated the Facebook user’s First Amendment rights by “suppressing critical commentary regarding elected officials.” Randall’s lawyer had tried to make the case that because the Facebook page isn’t an official resource funded by government, it should be immune to such criticism, but the judge decided that since she was using it to canvas opinion of constituents within office hours, it was fair game.
This may all seem quite minor – there is no penalty for Randall to pay, but what’s interesting here is the precedent set, which could have far reaching consequences.
All the way to the White House
You may be feeling a sense of déja vu at this point: the case bears a remarkable resemblance to the latest lawsuit currently facing President Donald Trump. Seven Americans are currently suing the president for his penchant for blocking dissenting voices on Twitter on his personal @realDonaldTrump account.
The argument isn’t quite as petty as it appears – at a glance, it looks like people are just seeking the right to troll the president without consequences, but it’s actually more serious than that. When you block someone on Twitter, you prevent them from seeing your tweets. If they can’t see your tweets, they can’t comment – and that means that with enough time and patience it would be possible to silence all dissent, so any neutral onlooker would only see praise for the president’s 140-character missives. Although it’s fair to say that with the level of dissent he receives, Trump would need to clear his schedule for a few weeks to get to that point.
So that case bears a remarkable resemblance to the ruling handed out in Virginia, and that similarity has not been missed Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute which is bringing the case against President Trump. In a statement to The Wall Street Journal, the group said: “We hope the courts look to this opinion as a road map in holding that it is unconstitutional for President Trump to block his critics on Twitter.”
As I wrote at the time, this wouldn’t have been an issue if Trump had just muted his hecklers, rather than blocking them. Not only would they still be allowed to yell into the void, but nobody would be any the wiser that he even noticed them. On Facebook it’s even more insidious: if you hide a comment, nobody will be able to see it anymore, but the person whose comment is hidden will be blissfully unaware they’ve been silenced.
In any case, watch this space. Trump may well be unbannable, but he may well end up having to endure a lot more digital barbs until he returns to being a private citizen again in 2020, 2024 or sooner.
Image: Tim Evanson used under Creative Commons