Donald Trump's usage of his Twitter account to pontificate on the news and make staffing and policy announcements has become internationally known. He clearly loves the social media site. But there are a select few Twitter users that he clearly does not love, which is why he has blocked them from following his posts.
Has President Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking people he doesn't like on Twitter? A case currently being litigated in federal district court is likely to point toward settling that dispute.
No one disputes that ordinary citizens who use social media should be able to block other users for any reason they like. But to this point, neither Congress nor the courts have decided whether federal officials have the right to stop people from responding to them on social media.
"Very often when you have new forms of communication, there's a tendency for some government officials to argue that the First Amendment doesn't apply because the new medium is somehow different," said Katie Fallow, a senior attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, a free-speech group representing several Twitter users who have been blocked by Trump.
It's not known how many accounts the president has blocked from following him, but there are several. (Twitter provides no programmatic mechanism to view the "block list" of users.) In a court filing with the New York federal district court, the Department of Justice admitted that Trump had blocked the plaintiffs in the suit because he disagreed with the content of their tweets directed at him.
Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, a Washington-based progressive legal affairs journalist, argues that she has been harmed professionally by not being able to see Trump's tweets.
"Not only can I not see or reply to the president's account, I cannot see which tweets others are referring to when they quote him," she wrote in a July essay for Fortune. "As a writer, being unable to see the president’s tweets and replies to these statements also makes it difficult to stay current and write timely analyses and responses."
One significant area of dispute that the court must resolve is whether a social media account used for official business can be fairly compared to public "town hall" meetings that politicians have organized since America's founding. The law governing such meetings explicitly prohibits "viewpoint discrimination," where citizens who express critical opinions are treated differently than those who express supportive positions.
In its responses to the Knight lawsuit, the Justice Department argues that Trump does not use Twitter as a public forum but instead as a place to discuss his own personal views. The president's critics find such claims unpersuasive.
"Trump's Twitter is very clearly the best place to go if you want to know what the president is saying," Joshua Geltzer, the executive director of Georgetown University's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, told Salon. His group is one of several that have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the Knight lawsuit.
Geltzer also argues that since Trump engages in dialogue with his Twitter followers and also interacts with accounts that do not follow him, Trump himself clearly regards his account as a public space.
"Trump might have a better rejoinder if his feed were just about broadcasting messages instead of the way that he uses it to converse," Geltzer said.
The government response to this argument is that a public official who blocks a social media user is not preventing that person from engaging in political speech, rather that the official is merely choosing not to engage in conversation. The DOJ brief compares Trump blocking a fellow Twitter user to a politician choosing to ignore a protester.
"Instead of curtailing speech, the public official who avoids a protester is simply declining to have that speech directed at him," the administration's attorneys wrote in a brief they filed November 17.
While there is no direct comparison with this particular case, the plaintiffs have cited a federal district court ruling in Virginia against a local politician named Phyllis Randall, who had banned a citizen from a Facebook page she had created after being elected to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.
The Trump administration argues that this precedent does not apply, however, because the page in question did not exist before Randall had assumed office.
Government attorneys have also argued that Trump's Twitter critics still have access to his public social-media statements, even if they cannot access them while logged into accounts he has blocked.
Holly Figueroa, a songwriter and organizer from Seattle, says she has considered opening another Twitter account to see what Trump is up to. She says that would be self-defeating, however, since she wants to be publicly engaged under her own name, just like the president is.
"I’m on Twitter as myself -- a person that others have come to know, whether it’s through the music I’ve worked on or my political commentary," she said. "If I protest something that the president says or does, I want to do it under my own name, not hiding in the shadows."
There's no telling where the case against Trump will end up. One possibility is that the courts may decide to split the difference on the matter by recommending that Trump and other public officials utilize Twitter's "mute" feature. Any Twitter account-holder can use this function to hide tweets from particular users without impairing the muted user's ability to respond or view the first user's posts.
Katie Fallow of the Knight Institute admits that had Trump gone with muting a critic, it would make for a more difficult case. "To some extent that is less of a First Amendment violation, if you still permit the person whose viewpoint the public official doesn't like to post comments on the comment threads," she said. "So you're not interfering with their ability to speak in the forum and that's less of a problem."
Whether Trump or federal judges are tech-savvy enough to be able to understand the "block" versus "mute" distinction is yet to be determined.