President Donald Trump should simply "mute" Twitter followers he finds objectionable instead of blocking them. That's the very strong suggestion of U.S. District Court Naomi Reice Buchwald in New York, who is presiding over a lawsuit brought against Trump by when seven blocked Twitter users and Columbia University's Knight First Amendment Institute.
"I don't quite know why we're here," Buchwald told lawyers from the Department of Justice and the Knight Institute Thursday morning. "Don't we have a solution that serves the interests of (the parties)?"
Her comments came during a two-hour argument over whether Trump, who tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account, violates the First Amendment by blocking critics on Twitter. The Knight Institute sued Trump and his social media director, Dan Scavino, over the blocks last July, arguing that the @realDonaldTrump account is a "public forum" -- meaning it's comparable to city streets, parks and other locales where the government can't prevent people from speaking based on their views. The users want Buchwald to declare the blocks unconstitutional, and to order the White House to unblock them.
Twitter users who are blocked from Trump's account can't view his tweets or replies while logged in; if those users sign out of Twitter, they may still be able to view the posts. Blocked users are also restricted from commenting in some threads -- though there are workarounds.
The Knight Center argues that Trump's Twitter account is comparable to a digital town hall, where government officials aren't allowed to exclude people based on their political views.
DOJ lawyer Michael Baer countered this morning that the town hall comparison isn't on point, given that blocked Twitter users can continue to interact with other Trump followers. "I don't think we can decide this case on real-world analogies alone," he said.
Baer specifically argued added that Trump's blocks don't prevent users from either reading Trump's tweets or discussing them in other users' threads.
Buchwald appeared skeptical of that argument, noting that the Twitter blocks can affect users beyond just those who are blocked.
"Other constituents are not able to engage in the cross-communication that Twitter is known for," she said. "It is not the case that the only person harmed by blocking is the blockee."
She also said that if Trump's account is considered a public forum, he wouldn't be able to block people based on their views. "Once it's a public forum, you can't shut somebody up because you don't like what they're saying," she said.
Buchwald proposed several times that the parties could resolve the lawsuit if Trump used Twitter's "mute" feature.
"Isn't the answer that he just mutes the person he finds personally offensive?" she asked.
Knight Center attorney Katie Fallow suggested in her response that muting would have been preferable to blocking them, but that even muting users could prevent them from expressing their complaints to Trump via Twitter. (The Knight Center argued in court papers filed last December that muting would have "spared the President from having to encounter the individual plaintiffs’ responses and criticisms," but would not have hindered the users from accessing tweets or interacting with other commenters.)
Buchwald urged both sides to accept her proposed resolution rather than continue to litigate. "There is always a risk that you could lose," she said. "You don't necessary want to risk law being made that you don't want on the books."