Donald Trump at a campaign rally in 2016.
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in 2016. (Michael Candelori via Wiki Commons)

A group of Twitter users blocked by President Donald Trump are suing after a request to be unblocked on First Amendment grounds went unheeded.

Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Trump, 17-cv-05205, filed in the Southern District by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf of seven Twitter users, alleges Trump blocked them after they posted statements critical of the president on the social media platform.

In the complaint filed Tuesday, plaintiffs claim the move violates the First Amendment. The president’s account, they allege, represents a public forum and is open to participation by the public. Blocking individuals who are critical of the president and his policies represents an unconstitutional viewpoint-based restriction, they said.

The suit comes after a June 6 letter to Trump from the Knight Institute on behalf of the same parties, calling on the president to unblock the represented users as well as any others who were blocked for similar reasons.

The seven users each allege a similar situation to that of writer and legal analyst Rebecca Buckwalter. She alleges that she was blocked after responding to a June 6 tweet by the president at his account @realDonaldTrump, “Sorry folks, but if I would have relied on the Fake News of CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS washpost or nytimes, I would have had ZERO chance winning WH.”

Buckwalter responded to the tweet, stating, “To be fair you didn’t win the WH: Russia won it for you,” which went on to receive 9,033 likes and 3,371 retweets. She discovered shortly thereafter that she was blocked from access to the president’s account, according to the complaint.

Katie Fallow, a senior attorney at the Knight Institute, said the U.S. Supreme Court has long held that public forums must be free from viewpoint discrimination, and Twitter and other social media platforms increasingly used by government officials represent “a virtual public forum.” She noted that Trump’s account operates much differently from those of private individuals, whom she said are free to block whomever they chose.

Trump, on the other hand, is a government official, and has used his personal account as an official platform in that capacity, Fallow said. She pointed to his decision to announce the nomination of Christopher Wray as FBI director, and the White House staff’s repeated reference to the president’s Twitter posting as official statements, as evidence that his Twitter account amounts to a constitutionally protected forum.

“He uses it all the time to make official announcements, to describe his official actions, his official decision,” she said.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Packingham v. North Carolina, 15-1194, has helped solidify the extension of First Amendment rights into the digital environment, Fallow said. The complaint argues that the same sort of considerations that the Supreme Court has given to protecting speech in public forums should extend to the virtual ones now being employed by Trump and other elected officials.

“There are lots of other government officials … that use social media accounts,” she said. “If they use it in their official capacity … they can’t engage in viewpoint discrimination.”

The Knight Institute’s Jameel Jaffer represents the plaintiffs.

Counsel for the president, as well as his co-defendants White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and director of social media Daniel Scavino, has not been assigned. A White House spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

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