President Donald Trump is asking a federal appellate court to reverse a finding that he violates critics' free speech rights by blocking them on Twitter.
In legal papers filed Tuesday, the Department of Justice argues that the @realDonaldTrump account -- which Trump uses to broadcast official policy statements -- is his "personal" account, and that his blocking of critics is "merely an exercise of his personal, not governmental, authority to exclude individuals from that private account."
"The @realDonaldTrump account is neither owned nor controlled by the federal government; it belongs to Donald Trump in his personal capacity," the government argues. "Nothing in the First Amendment divests Donald Trump of the ability to decline to receive messages on his private property that he does not wish to hear, nor does it compel him to allow others to use his speech as a platform to amplify their own."
The administration's appeal comes several months after U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in New York ruled that Trump acts unconstitutionally when he blocks people based on the views reflected in their Twitter posts. "The blocking of the individual plaintiffs as a result of the political views they have expressed is impermissible under the First Amendment," she wrote in a sweeping ruling addressing people's free speech rights in the digital era.
The legal dispute dates to last July, when the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and seven critics of the president who were blocked by him. They argued that the @realDonaldTrump account is a "public forum" -- meaning that 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 asked Buchwald to declare the blocks unconstitutional, and to order Trump and other officials to remove the blocks.
The Department of Justice urged Buchwald to reject the claims, arguing that Trump has a First Amendment right to decide who to interact with on Twitter. The government also argued that the blocked Twitter users weren't injured, because they could continue to read Trump's tweets and interact with other users.
But Buchwald said in her ruling that the blocks impermissibly limited people's ability to use Twitter. "As long as they remain blocked, 'the Individual Plaintiffs cannot view the President’s tweets; directly reply to these tweets; or use the @realDonaldTrump webpage to view the comment threads associated with the President’s tweets while they are logged in to their verified accounts,'" she wrote, quoting from a court document.
She added that it's also difficult for people to "understand the reply tweets without the context of the original @realDonaldTrump tweets."
The White House is now asking the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse Buchwald's ruling. The Justice Department makes several arguments, including that Trump is acting as a private individual, and not a government representative, when he blocks people on Twitter.
"The First Amendment protects individuals against abridgments of their speech by the government, not against restrictions attributable to private actions," lawyers for Trump argue. "The @realDonaldTrump account belongs to Donald Trump in his personal capacity, not his official one. He established and began frequent use of the account in 2009, long before his election and inauguration."
The Department of Justice previously stipulated that Trump uses Twitter to communicate "with the public through statements about official matters and other comments about his administration." The government also stipulated that Trump's social media director, Dan Scavino, also posts to the account.
Internet law expert Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, says that the administration's attempt to characterize the @realDonaldTrump account as personal is "completely unconvincing."
"I don't see how they can do that," he says, adding that the argument isn't consistent with the administration's acknowledgment that Trump makes official government statements from the account, and that a government employee contributes to it.