(Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Blocking Twitter users a violation of First Amendment for president

NEW YORK — A Manhattan federal judge ruled Wednesday that President Donald Trump is violating the First Amendment by blocking people from his Twitter feed based on their political views and critical comments they post about him.

In a 75-page ruling U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald found that the president’s @realDonaldTrump account was a “public forum” and his right to not associate with hostile people did not trump their right to participate without “viewpoint discrimination.”

“While we recognize and are sensitive to the President’s personal First Amendment rights, he cannot exercise those rights in a way that infringes the corresponding First Amendment rights of those who have criticized him,” Buchwald wrote.

The judge issued her ruling in the form of a declaratory judgment, but did not take the additional step of issuing an injunction against Trump, which the president’s lawyers argued would be improper.

“A declaratory judgment should be sufficient, as no government official — including the president — is above the law, and all government officials are presumed to follow the law as has been declared,” Buchwald wrote.

The suit was filed by several Trump critics blocked from his Twitter feed, and by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which called the ruling a “careful application of core First Amendment principles to government censorship on a new communications platform.”

“The president’s practice of blocking critics on Twitter is pernicious and unconstitutional, and we hope this ruling will bring it to an end,” said executive director Jameel Jaffer.

The Justice Department was noncommittal about a possible appeal. “We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision and are considering our next steps,” said Kerri Kupec, a spokesperson.

Although Trump created his Twitter account in 2009 as a private citizen, the judge said it has now become a “public forum” because he uses it to make official announcement and for other public purposes. The account has 52 million followers.

“The President presents the @real DonaldTrump account as being a presidential account as opposed to a personal account and more importantly, uses the account to take actions that can be taken only by the President as President,” Buchwald wrote.
She said a “public forum” has to be open to all, but the effect of blocking people who attack him is to prevent them from seeing his tweets directly, responding to them, and viewing the comments and back-and-forth among others who respond to his tweets.

She also said Trump’s right to choose who he engages with did not override others’ right to follow him, ruling that the president could “mute” people he didn’t like — a Twitter function that means he doesn’t see their comments — without blocking them from seeing his tweets.

“Muting equally vindicates the President’s right to ignore certain speakers and to selectively amplify the voices of certain others but — unlike blocking — does so without restricting the right of the ignored to speak,” the judge said.

Buchwald said her ruling would bind Trump and his social media director, Dan Scavino. She dismissed press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders from the suit because she didn’t control blocking, and ex-communications director Hope Hicks because she has left the White House.

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