President Donald Trump is quite possibly the most famous Twitter troll in the world. He has been posting inflammatory remarks on the site through his @realDonaldTrump account since long before he became president. As far as trolls go, however, he is quite thin-skinned, and along the way he has blocked quite a few people who have criticized him.
I’m one such person he has blocked on Twitter. He blocked me years before he became president. I’m not sure exactly when, but I think it was after I tweeted this at him while he was ranting about President Barack Obama for not shutting down travel from Ebola-infected countries:
While I get a bit of satisfaction from the idea that the now-most powerful man in the free world couldn’t handle my criticism, it poses challenges. For example, I have to write about the president sometimes, and when that includes things he tweeted, I have to log out or use a dummy account to see what he even said first.
Other people have had this problem too, and some have gone so far as to say it is a violation of their First Amendment rights, since he is using his Twitter account in an official government capacity, and therefore this information cannot be blocked from people based on their political views.
That is the thrust of a lawsuit brought in federal court by Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute on behalf of a group of Twitter users. Among the plaintiffs are Holly Figueroa O’Reilly, who replied to a tweet of Trump with an image of the Pope rolling his eyes, and Rebecca Buckwalter, who tweeted at him, “To be fair you didn’t win the WH: Russia won it for you.” Last May, Manhattan federal judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled in their favor, saying Twitter constitutes a public forum and a block from a politician limits a person’s “right to speak in a discrete, measurable way.”
On Tuesday, the Justice Department argued for Trump as the appeal of that case was heard before a three-judge panel in Manhattan. Trump, the DOJ lawyers said, may tweet from the @realDonaldTrump account in his official capacity, but when he blocks people, he is blocking them as a private citizen, and not “wielding the power” of the federal government. Which is a really convenient argument — Trump can have all the authority of the government on his Twitter account, but none of its responsibilities.
Most politicians have both two separate social media accounts, one for official government services and another for personal or campaign-related material. In theory, Trump has that setup too — he has a separate government account called @POTUS, run by White House social media director Dan Scavino. But in practice, he mingles government and personal business on his @realDonaldTrump account all the time, and even the DOJ’s lawyers didn’t try to dispute it. He has even used that account to make major policy announcements, like the military transgender ban and the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. These are things that the average citizen might want to comment on, and Trump’s use of the block button prevents everyone from having the equal ability to do that.
Indeed, the judges on Tuesday pointed out a pretty big hole in Trump’s argument: if Trump’s blocking habits are in his personal capacity, why are government attorneys at the DOJ coming to the defense of his right to do it? “It is curious to me that the Justice Department is here representing him,” said Judge Peter Hall. “Your very presence here represents that this is a public forum.”
It remains to be seen whether I will ever have unfettered access to the president’s tweets again. But it is yet another example of how Trump’s lack of respect for tradition and norms is leading to unique legal situations.