Supreme Court: Officials can be sued for blocking social media

Supreme Court: Officials can be sued for blocking social media

WASHINGTON (AP) – Unanimous Supreme Court ruled Friday that public officials can sometimes be sued for blocking their critics on social media, an issue that first came before the Supreme Court in a case involving then-President Donald Trump.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the court, said officials who use personal accounts to make official statements may not be free to delete comments on those statements or block critics entirely.

On the other hand, Barrett writes, “Government officials have private lives and their own constitutional rights.”

The court ruled on two cases in cases filed by people who have been blocked after leaving critical comments on social media accounts belonging to Southern California school board members and a city manager in Port Huron, Michigan, northeast of Detroit. They are similar to a case involving Trump and his decision to block critics from his personal Twitter account, now known as X. The judges drop the case after Trump leaves office in January 2021.

The cases have forced the court to grapple with the competing free speech rights of public officials and their constituents, all in a rapidly evolving virtual world. They are among five social media cases being heard by the court this term.

Appeals courts in San Francisco and Cincinnati had reached conflicting rulings on when personal accounts become official, and the high court did not adopt either ruling, sending the cases back to appeals courts to apply the standard laid out by the justices on Friday.

“When a public official posts on social media about work-related topics, it can be difficult to tell whether the speech is official or private,” Barrett said.

Officials should have the authority to speak on behalf of their governments and intend to use it to have their posts considered essentially governmental, Barrett wrote. In such cases, they must allow criticism or risk being sued, she wrote.

In one case, James Freed, who was appointed to Port Huron city ​​manager in 2014, uses the Facebook page he first created while in college to communicate with the public as well as recount details of everyday life.

In 2020, a resident, Kevin Lindke, used the page to comment multiple times from three Facebook accounts, including criticism of the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Freed blocked all three accounts and deleted Lindke’s comments. Lindke sued, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Freed, noting that his Facebook page spoke of his roles as “father, husband and city manager.”

The other case involved two elected members of a California school board, the Poway Unified School District Board of Trustees. Members Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliffe and TJ Zane used their personal Facebook and Twitter accounts to communicate with the public. Two parents, Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, left critical comments and replies to posts on board members’ accounts and were blocked. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the board members violated the parents’ free speech rights by doing so. Zane is no longer on the school board.

Other social media court cases have a more partisan flavor. The judges are evaluating Republican-passed laws in Florida and Texas which prohibit major social media companies from removing posts because of the opinions they express. The tech companies said the laws violated their First Amendment rights. The laws reflect Republicans’ view that the platforms disproportionately censor conservative viewpoints.

Next week, the court will hear an appeal from Missouri and Louisiana against the Biden administration’s efforts to fight controversial posts on social media on topics including COVID-19 and election security. The states argued that the Democratic administration unconstitutionally forced platforms to break conservative positions.

The cases decided Friday are O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier, 22-324, and Lindke v. Freed, 22-611.

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