The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Monday to examine whether the First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits public officials from blocking their critics on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter as it explores free speech rights in the social media era.
The justices heard an appeal from two Poway, California, public school board members challenging a lower court’s decision in favor of school parents who filed a lawsuit after being denied access to Facebook sites and a Twitter account run by the officials.
The justices also heard an appeal by a Michigan man from a lower court’s decision against him after he sued a Port Huron city official who blocked him on Facebook after the plaintiff posted negative statements about the local government’s response to COVID-19.
The question at hand is whether a public official’s social media participation qualifies as official government action subject to First Amendment restrictions on official speech regulation.
The Supreme Court was confronted with a similar First Amendment dilemma in 2021 when a case concerning former President Donald Trump’s attempt to restrict detractors from his Twitter account came up in court. After Trump had left office, the justices decided the issue was moot and overturned a lower court’s ruling that the former president had violated constitutional free speech rights. This put an end to the legal dispute.
Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane, elected officials in the Poway Unified School District, are involved in the California case. After the couple posted hundreds of negative comments on topics like racial inequality and the management of public schools’ budgets, they blocked Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, parents of three students attending district schools, on Facebook and Twitter.
The Garniers filed a lawsuit against O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane in federal court, saying that their First Amendment rights to free speech had been violated.
According to the Garniers’ court brief, Zane and O’Connor-Ratcliff each maintained open Facebook sites identifying them as public servants. “T.J. Zane, Poway Unified School District Trustee” was the page’s title, and it featured a photo of a sign for the school system.
Additionally, O’Connor-Ratcliff had a public Twitter account. According to the court document, she listed herself as the “President of the PUSD Board of Education” on both that account and her Facebook page and provided links to that address.
In 2021, a federal judge in California made a decision in the parents’ favor. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has its headquarters in San Francisco, concurred last July, saying that the school board members had advertised their social media pages as “channels of communication with the public” regarding school board matters.
Kevin Lindke, a citizen of Port Huron, was banned from City Manager James Freed’s public Facebook page in Michigan after criticizing the COVID-19 outbreak.
Freed was sued in federal court by Lindke, who said that his First Amendment rights had been violated.
According to Lindke’s court document, Freed had a public Facebook profile that listed him as a “public figure,” had a photo of him wearing his city manager insignia, and routinely provided details on city policies and activities.
In 2021, a federal judge made a decision in Freed’s favor. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has its headquarters in Cincinnati, concurred in July of last year and found that Freed had not acted in his official role when he blocked Lindke from Facebook.
In both cases, the petitioners argued before the Supreme Court that the conflicting rulings in their cases showed a split among lower courts that the justices should bridge.