A federal judge on Wednesday ruled it is unconstitutional for President Donald Trump to block critics on his personal Twitter account, deeming tweets from @realDonaldTrump to be a "public forum" under partial governmental control and therefore people cannot be excluded based on their political beliefs.
"This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, 'block' a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed, and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States," wrote US District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the Southern District of New York. "The answer to both questions is no."
The case against Trump, former communications director Hope Hicks, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and social media director Dan Scavino was brought in July by Columbia University's Knight First Amendment Institute as well as by several Twitter users who criticized the president and were subsequently blocked. (Sanders, who does not have access to Trump's account, was dismissed as a defendant, as was Hicks, following her resignation earlier this year.)
Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight Institute, said he was pleased with the decision. “The president’s practice of blocking critics on Twitter is pernicious and unconstitutional, and we hope this ruling will bring it to an end," Jaffer said. The White House and Department of Justice didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
Department of Justice spokesperson Kerri Kupec said, “We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision and are considering our next steps.”
Trump established the @realDonaldTrump account in March 2009, long before he sought the presidency, but has since continued to use it since entering the Oval Office. He announced he was nominating Christopher Wray to be FBI director on Twitter and on Sunday he even issued an order to the Department of Justice via a tweet. The White House has also called Trump's tweets official statements.
"The President and Scavino’s control over the @realDonaldTrump account is also governmental," wrote the judge, noting Trump's Twitter bio identifies him as the 45th president of the United States.
The judge ruled that the plaintiffs' critical tweets at the president were protected as political speech under the First Amendment and that Trump's tweets have been used to appoint and fire staff and to conduct foreign policy.
It is also not relevant that the account was made before Trump became president, the judge ruled, comparing it to a privately constructed airport that was subsequently taken over by a public agency.
The judge distinguished between the content of Trump's tweets and "the interactive space for replies and retweets created by each tweet," ruling that the latter is a public forum that the government cannot block people from engaging in based on their political views.
"Here, the individual plaintiffs were indisputably blocked as a result of viewpoint discrimination," wrote the judge, noting the Twitter users were blocked by Trump or Scavino after they replied to one of his tweets in a critical tone.
"The continued exclusion of the individual plaintiffs based on viewpoint is, therefore, impermissible under the First Amendment," the judge wrote.
Rather than issuing an injunction forcing Trump and Scavino to unblock users, the judge simply issued a ruling that the blocking violates the Constitution and asserted that it was likely the president and Scavino would willingly follow her constitutional ruling.