SCOTUS Debates Whether Public Officials Can Block Critics on Social Media

( – The Supreme Court had trouble defining when a politician was on duty concerning their social media accounts and their ability to block members of the public. All nine justices expressed sentiments suggesting the need to balance the free speech rights of individuals acting in an official capacity versus the right of the public to express criticism in line with their First Amendment rights.

They failed to reach a consensus after three hours of arguments on Tuesday, October 31st. Two cases have been bundled into a single issue before the Court. In one case, school board members in California blocked parents from their Facebook page. In the other case, a city manager from Michigan blocked a resident after he criticized the city’s pandemic response policies. The first case went in favor of the folks opposed to blocking while the second supported the manager’s right to block the commenter.

In a 2019 ruling, an appeals court declared that then-President Trump was out of line when he blocked contrary sentiments from his Twitter (now X) timeline. The SCOTUS declined to take up the issue after he was booted off Twitter in the aftermath of January 6th saying the matter was moot.

With this recent case, the matter has become more relevant than ever and isn’t going away anytime soon. During deliberations, Justice Elena Kagan suggested that the digital sphere is increasingly becoming the venue for public discussions and for citizens to interact with their representatives and other officials.

The argument in favor of blocking is that digital spaces are akin to private property and anyone can decide who comes into their private property. Justice Samuel Alito argued against that line of reasoning by suggesting digital spaces like Facebook pages don’t cost anything, unlike private property. He also suggested said they weren’t real spaces and thus weren’t entitled to the same protections.

In the California case, Kimberly and Christopher Garnier sued after they were blocked from the Facebook pages of two school board members, T.J. Zane and Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff. An appeals court sided with the Garniers, agreeing that Zane and Ratcliff used their pages to conduct official business and make community announcements that weren’t available elsewhere.

In the Michigan case, an appeals court sided with the city manager of Port Huron, MI, after he blocked a critical commenter. They determined that the manager, James Freed, was within his rights and used the account in question for personal activity more than government business.

The issue remains complicated and contentious and arguments will continue over the next few weeks.

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