Can President block people on Twitter?

March 10, 2018 07:55 pm | Updated March 11, 2018 04:04 pm IST

Cartoon illustration of hash tag using a mobile phone

Cartoon illustration of hash tag using a mobile phone

Donald Trump, the 45th President of the U.S., makes it a point to follow only 45 handles on Twitter, his favourite medium. Of this, seven are other Trumps — Melania, Ivanka, Eric, Venessa, Lara, and Tiffany and Trump Jr. He follows Twitter handles of his own properties and TV anchors that support him such as Fox News’s Sean Hannity. He recently unfollowed Trump Waikiki, his hotel in Hawaii, to follow White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

Mr. Trump obviously does not want to be distracted by contrarian opinions, but he cannot restrict others from commenting. So, the President routinely blocks those who make unfavourable comments on his posts. But whether the President can block people on Twitter has now become a constitutional question. Seven people who are blocked by Mr. Trump have approached the judiciary pleading that their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech is being unconstitutionally restricted by the President.

It turns out that it doesn’t take much to rile Mr. Trump, who has 48.8 million followers on his personal account. In June 2017, Mike Elgan, a journalist, wrote to Mr. Trump on Twitter, “… a witch hunt is when you attack people on bad evidence, as with your birther attack on Obama. An investigation is about facts.” He was replying to Mr. Trump’s tweet that described the Russia investigation as “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history”. Mr. Elgan was blocked.

Holly Figueroa O’Reilly, 47, a songwriter and mother of five from Seattle, had trolled Mr. Trump before being blocked. What got his goat in this instance was a meme in which Pope Francis was seen losing his smile as he comes face to face with Mr. Trump. “This is pretty much how the whole world sees you,” Ms. O’Reilly wrote to Mr. Trump. She is one of the petitioners in the lawsuit, now before a federal judge in New York. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University has also joined the petitioners.

Direct communication

Mr. Trump has posted at least 37,000 tweets since he joined Twitter in March 2009. He announces policy, intervenes in debates and pats himself on the back frequently on Twitter. The President was implored during the initial days in office to give up Twitter or be restrained in its usage. But he believes that it is his medium of direct communication with the people. He has blamed CNN 33 times and the New York Times 37 times on Twitter since becoming President. The right-wing TV station Fox or its primetime anchor Mr. Hannity received endorsement from the President 164 times. As President, he has called someone a ‘loser’ 234 times and mentioned the word ‘stupid’ 183 times. All this we can now find out easily thanks to Brendan Brown, a Boston-based programmer, who runs the ‘Trump Twitter Archive’, where each post by the President is saved in a searchable archive.

The question before the judiciary is whether the President's Twitter account is a ‘public forum’ and his action of blocking people constitutes ‘state action’. The government wants the case dismissed and points out that his personal account is personal, and only the official handle that has has more than 22 million followers is official. Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald may not enter into the constitutional arguments, it appears. During a hearing this week, she proposed a practical solution — why can’t the President mute the users rather than block them if he doesn’t want to see their comments? Now, that is a technological solution to a constitutional question.

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