Trump loves Twitter. Our President uses the platform to announce everything from negotiations with North Korea and the ban on transgender soldiers to tirades against “fake news,” which are all freely readable, even if you’re not one of the nearly 46 million followers he has on the site.
Unless, of course, you’re blocked. This is a punishment Trump doles out to some of his worst enemies on the site: Stephen King, Chrissy Teigen, and countless other Americans who’ve expressed less-than-stellar reviews of his policies.
This behavior isn’t just immature — it might be illegal. Back in June, a team of seven Twitter users that had been blocked by Trump teamed up with The Knight First Amendment Institute to file a lawsuit against him. They claim Trump’s Twitter feed can be considered a “public forum”: a space where, under the First Amendment, citizens should be free to gather and speak without government retribution. A block from @realDonaldTrump, the plaintiffs say, barrs citizens from a politically significant public forum, and violates their First Amendment rights.
In a statement to The Boston Globe, the Knight Institute’s Executive Director, Jameel Jaffer, said that the First Amendment protects this digital forum the same way it protects “town halls and open school board meetings,” adding that exclusion from this space is nothing short of “unlawful.”
The Institute’s lawyers dug through Trump’s twitter feed to uncover what had spurred the Commander in Chief to to block their seven plaintiffs and found, in every case, that the answer was criticism. One litigant, Eugene Gu, had publicly mocked Trump over a typo. Philip N. Cohen, another, had called the president a “corrupt, incompetent authoritarian.” In the legal proceedings, the Department of Justice admitted outright that Trump had blocked these users solely because they’d disparaged him.
But in a public forum, all forms of political expression — including critiques — are heavily buttressed by the First Amendment. So the DOJ’s disclosure didn’t just reveal Trump’s short fuse, but that his actions violated constitutional laws.
White House lawyers, for their part, have tried to sidestep these arguments by claiming that @realDonaldTrump isn’t a public forum. They say that Trump has always used the platform to express private speech — personal opinions and thoughts — rather than as a place to pass any kind of state action. It just so happens that sometimes this private speech concerns presidential policy, leaving him with tweets that toe the line between personal rant and an presidential statement.
If that sounds ridiculous to you, you’re not alone. In a statement to Salon, Georgetown University law professor Joshua Geltzer claimed that even Trump himself views the site as an open forum. For proof, he points to Trump’s constant back-and-forths with other users on the site; both with the millions who follow him, and with those who don’t. In Geltzer’s eyes, Trump wouldn’t bother tweeting, retweeting and engaging with these audiences unless he saw Twitter’s value as a public soapbox, rather than a private journal.
“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.
It’s 2018, and this lawsuit is still bitterly marching on. If the seven Twitter users win this case, Trump will lift his blocks on them; they’ll be able to read and reply to his tweets just as they did before. But until that happens, they’re stuck receiving the silent treatment from the most powerful man in the nation.