The White House has filed a legal brief arguing people blocked by President Donald Trump’s Twitter account cannot sue him for restricting their access to his tweets. Opponents say the brief is tantamount to claiming the Commander in Chief’s social media use is beyond the reach of the First Amendment, placing the president above the law.
The argument came in reaction to a lawsuit filed in July by seven users who have been blocked by Trump on Twitter and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Plaintiffs allege that a president blocking users on the social media service violates the First Amendment, as Trump’s use of the service constitutes a “state action.” In other words, they argue, blocking users infringes on their First Amendment rights because it inhibits their ability to speak freely (to the president) in a public forum.
“The First Amendment applies to this digital forum in the same way it applies to town halls and open school board meetings,” Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s executive director, told the Boston Globe in August. “The White House acts unlawfully when it excludes people from this forum simply because they’ve disagreed with the president.”
White House lawyers flatly rejected this claim in a brief filed on Friday. They argued that not only are the Commander in Chief’s published statements on Twitter not a “state action,” but that individual citizens don’t have standing to sue the president because “it would flout the separation of powers for the Court to issue an order limiting the President’s discretion in managing his Twitter account.”
Even if the plaintiffs have standing, the brief contends, the president’s use of Twitter is simply a “forum” that does not require neutrality.
“At most, the account is a channel for The President’s speech, and the requirement of viewpoint neutrality accordingly does not apply,” the authors write.
The brief’s insistence that the president’s account is “personal” was also backed by the Department of Justice, which argued in a letter on Friday that the president’s use of the account doesn’t constitute a state action but is just one of “many… personal decisions he makes as president.”
Leaders at the Knight Institute were not convinced.
“The White House’s claim that the court lacks authority to enjoin the president is wrong, and if it were accepted its implications would be far-reaching and intolerable. The president isn’t above the law,” Jaffer said in a statement Saturday morning. “The government’s claim to the contrary is based on an overbroad reading of cases that involved very different factual contexts as well as executive interests far more weighty than the ones at issue here.”
Other issues with the president’s claim abound. Although both the brief and the DoJ claim that the president’s account is personal, for instance, Trump’s own former press secretary Sean Spicer once argued the tweets were “official statements” of the president. What’s more, the White House argued in a June letter to Congress that Trump’s tweets are official state language when discussing Trump’s firing of former FBI director James Comey.
The case is currently still making its way through the federal court system. In the meantime, Trump’s longstanding habit of blocking people on Twitter who disagree with him persists. In addition to blocking celebrities such as author Stephen King, the president’s account has also reportedly blocked models, veterans organizations, and a woman with stage 4 cancer who criticized his health care plan.