President Donald Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking critics on Twitter, a federal appellate court in New York said Tuesday.
“Once the President has chosen a platform and opened up its interactive space to millions of users and participants, he may not selectively exclude those whose views he disagrees with,” 2nd Circuit Judge Barrington Parker Jr. wrote in a 29-page opinion joined by Judges Peter Hall and Christopher Droney.
The opinion upheld a ruling issued last year by U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in New York, who ruled that Trump engages in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination when he blocks critics.
"The First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees," Parker wrote in Tuesday's decision.
The legal battle dates to 2017, when the Knight Institute at Columbia University sued Trump on behalf of seven critics who were blocked by him on Twitter. The organization argued that Trump violated the critics' free speech rights.
The Knight Institute 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 organization asked Buchwald to declare the blocks unconstitutional, and to order Trump and other officials to remove the blocks.
Buchwald agreed with the Knight Institute that Trump acted unconstitutionally, but stopped short of ordering him to stop blocking people on social media.
The Department of Justice appealed to the 2nd Circuit, arguing that Trump acts in a “personal” capacity, as opposed to an official one, when he blocks people on Twitter.
The appellate judges rejected that argument.
“We conclude that the evidence of the official nature of the Account is overwhelming,” the opinion states. “The government’s contention that the President’s use of the account during his presidency is private founders in the face of the uncontested evidence in the record of substantial and pervasive government involvement with, and control over, the account.”
The judges note that since becoming president, Trump has used the account almost daily to communicate about his administration. “He uses the account to announce 'matters related to official government business,' including high-level White House and cabinet level staff changes as well as changes to major national policies” the opinion states. “He uses the account to engage with foreign leaders and to announce foreign policy decisions and initiatives. Finally, he uses the 'like,' 'retweet,' 'reply,' and other functions of the account to understand and to evaluate the public’s reaction to what he says and does.”