Public Officials Face Scrutiny for Blocking Critics on Personal Facebook Pages
The Supreme Court justices engaged in a heated debate on Tuesday regarding whether public officials have the right to block individuals who criticize them on their personal Facebook pages. Under consideration is whether government employees, including city managers, school board members, and even former President Trump, can reference government business on their personal social media accounts without granting critics the right to respond.
Background: Violation of Free Speech Rights
The case before the justices involves two school board members from the San Diego area who were sued for violating the free-speech rights of two parents. Christopher and Kimberly Garnier were blocked from the board members’ Facebook and Twitter accounts due to their repetitive comments. The Federal courts in California ruled in favor of the Garniers, stating that the First Amendment prohibits officials from excluding their critics when utilizing personal social media accounts for public matters. This follows a similar defeat for former President Trump, who was found to have violated the First Amendment by blocking critics on his Twitter account.
State Action and First Amendment Rights
The Supreme Court is now addressing the case of Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff, a school board member from the Poway Unified School District, and T.J. Zane, a former member also facing a lawsuit. Their case is linked with that of a city manager in Port Huron, Mich., who successfully blocked an online critic. The central legal question for the Supreme Court is whether public officials are engaging in “state action” when using their personal pages to communicate with the public. The 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco held that the school board members were acting officially and therefore bound by the First Amendment. The board members have appealed, urging the justices to overturn the 9th Circuit’s ruling, which currently sets the precedent for public officials in California and Western states. They argue that their social media accounts represent their personal views and should not be considered as speaking on behalf of the school district. They also warn that ruling in favor of the Garniers could lead to a flood of harassment, trolling, and hate speech on public officials’ social media pages, rendering them powerless to filter such content.
Justices Divided: Balancing Personal and Official Accounts
During the hearing, the Supreme Court justices did not align along the usual ideological lines. Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan challenged the idea that government officials could shield themselves from critics by using private social media accounts. Kagan, referring to former President Trump, questioned whether his Twitter account could be considered personal given his extensive use of it for official purposes. On the other hand, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh expressed concern over transforming the personal pages of local and state officials into official government accounts, thereby exposing them to potential First Amendment lawsuits. Kavanaugh emphasized the potential impact on numerous government officials at the local level, affecting a wide range of individuals.
Broader Implications: First Amendment and Social Media
The pair of cases heard on Tuesday marks the first of three disputes the Supreme Court will address regarding the application of the First Amendment to social media. The justices will also rule on whether states like Texas and Florida violate the First Amendment by penalizing school media platforms for alleged discrimination against conservatives. Additionally, they will decide whether the Biden administration violated the First Amendment by pressuring Facebook and other platforms to remove “disinformation” related to COVID-19 and vaccines.