Even though President Donald Trump uses his Twitter account to make official policy statements, the account itself is “private,” lawyers for the White House contend in new court papers.
The DOJ makes the argument as part of its push to convince the 2nd Circuit that Trump doesn't violate the First Amendment by blocking critics on Twitter.
“The @realDonaldTrump account is a private account that belongs to Donald Trump personally, not to the United States,” the Department of Justice writes in papers filed late last week with the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. “And when Donald Trump decides not to interact with other Twitter users through the @realDonaldTrump account by blocking them, he exercises a power enjoyed by all Twitter users.”
The legal battle dates to last year, when the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sued Trump on behalf of seven critics who were blocked by him on Twitter. The organization argued that Trump was violating the critics' free speech rights.
U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in New York ruled against Trump in May. She held it's unconstitutional for government officials like Trump to block Twitter users based on their political views.
The DOJ had argued to Buchwald that the blocked users could continue to read tweets from the president's @realDonaldTrump account, and could still interact with other users. But Buchwald said the blocks limited people's ability to interact on the service.
"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 is difficult for people to "understand the reply tweets without the context of the original @realDonaldTrump tweets."
The DOJ appealed that ruling to the 2nd Circuit, arguing the blocks were done by Trump in his personal capacity, not the government. “Plaintiffs have failed to show that Donald Trump’s decision to block them from interacting with his personal Twitter account involved an exercise of governmental authority,” the DOJ writes in its latest papers.
"Though he uses @realDonaldTrump to discuss matters related to the government, his control over that account is completely independent of his public office," the lawyers write. "His use of the account to make statements about official matters does not alter the fundamentally private, rather than governmental, nature of that authority."
The Knight Institute, which disputes that characterization of the account, contends that the @realDonaldTrump account functions as an “extension of the presidency.”
The organization added in court papers filed last month that the account is “akin to a digital town hall, with the President speaking from the podium at the front of the room and assembled citizens responding to him and engaging with one another about the President’s statements.”
The DOJ is asking the 2nd Circuit to reject that analogy. “In the digital town-hall scenario, the government has specifically and purposefully designed the event to provide the public with the opportunity to speak and respond to public officials. That is not what is going on here,” lawyers for the government write. “Instead, Donald Trump has used his Twitter account as a platform for his own speech, and has chosen not to engage with particular Twitter users in that account, which has the incidental effect of making it harder for them to engage with others in that account.”