Supreme Court rules government officials can block social media followers under certain circumstances

Supreme Court rules government officials can block social media followers under certain circumstances



CNN

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that state officials can block people on social media under certain circumstances, rejecting challenges to local government officials in Michigan and California who blocked followers who were critical of them on Facebook.

In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court set a clearer standard for when government officials are government actors online and when they can have more control over their social media presence. A second opinion, which dealt with a related dispute, was unsigned and had no dissents noted.

In an era when government officials often communicate with constituents through social media, the cases raised important First Amendment questions about whether those pages are private or an extension of the government. Some of the pages included information that appeared to be official alongside personal posts featuring the family dog.

“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 wrote.

A similar issue reached the Supreme Court when former President Donald Trump blocked several followers on the social media site then known as Twitter. A federal appeals court in New York sided with Trump, but by the time the appeal reached the Supreme Court, he had left office and the justices dismissed the case as moot.

The Supreme Court held that such speech by government officials can be imputed to the state and therefore subject to First Amendment scrutiny only if the person involved has the authority to speak on behalf of the state and if the official allegedly exercising this authority on the social media platform. The standard set by the court on Friday applies to all state employees.

one case O’Connor-Ratcliffe v. Garnier, features elected school board members in California who have locked out parents of students in their district. another, Lindke v. Freedis about a Michigan city manager who blocked a lawyer who criticized the city’s handling of Covid-19.

The judges did not fully address the standard he set will apply to the facts of these cases, instead allowing the lower courts to decide that.

“Today’s decision splits the gap between two pretty extreme poles,” said Steve Vladek, a CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

“Unlike the rule that public officials are always public actors on social media or never are, the court clarifies the specific circumstances in which, even through a personal account, a public official is still limited by the First Amendment in how they interact with its constituent parts. Lower courts will now have to apply this new test – so we’ll see how it works on the ground. But splitting the difference in theory helps explain why the court was unanimous.

Although the two cases raised common legal issues, the facts in each were slightly different.

Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliffe and TJ Zane were elected to the board of the Poway Unified School District near San Diego and used their personal Facebook and Twitter accounts to communicate with the public. They said they were “spammed” by comments and responses from Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, the parents of students in the district who expressed concerns about race relations. And so O’Connor-Ratcliffe and Zane blocked them.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the parents, concluding that social media pages are a public forum protected by the First Amendment, meaning the government can restrict voters’ speech based on their views.

James Freed was hired as the city manager of Port Huron, Michigan in 2014. He primarily uses his Facebook page to post photos of his family, but occasionally reposts press releases about city business or solicits feedback on government issues. services. Kevin Lindke, an outspoken critic of Fried, began posting critical messages on the page in 2020 about the city’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fried deleted those messages and blocked Lindke’s ability to post more.

The Cincinnati-based U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Freed in the dispute, concluding that he did not operate the page to fulfill the duties of his office and did not use his government authority to maintain it.

Barrett wrote that “if Freed was acting in his personal capacity when he blocked Lindke and deleted his comments, he did not violate Lindke’s First Amendment rights—instead, he exercised his own.”

“So Lindke can’t hang his hat on Freed’s status as a public servant,” she continued. “The distinction between private conduct and state action is one of substance, not label: private individuals can act with the authority of the state, and public officials have private lives and their own constitutional rights.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

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