Social media as a platform
As social media has become a vital platform for everyone, even the President, to communicate with the world, the rules regarding free speech have come into question.
Most notably, can a lawmaker block users from following and commenting on their pages? Is this a violation of the first amendment or a fundamental right to privacy?
This topic is more relevant than ever, and the courts are reviewing cases which will play an important role in the future. Donald Trump is currently being sued by the Knight First Amendment Institute for blocking users from his Twitter page. By doing so, he is filtering out responses that are unflattering and thus creating a conversation that is manufactured.
Another case in Virginia just ended with the Judge protecting the free speech of a local man against a government official.
After Phyllis Randall, chair of the county’s Board of Supervisors in Loudon County, Virginia, temporarily banned Brian Davison from her Facebook account, Davison took the case to the federal court. The two had previously interacted during a public meeting last year, where Davison reportedly asked a question that Randall believed was meant to stir up controversy. After posting about the meeting on her public Facebook page, Davison commented and brought up possible corruption and nepotism on Randall’s part. Randall’s reaction was to delete the post altogether and ban Davison from following her page. She eventually lifted the ban but it was too late.
In court, the Judge found that Randall could not ban Davison from her Facebook page because of an illegal prior constraint based solely on his point of view. Even though Randall attempted to make the case that her Facebook page was personal, the court decided that she still “acted in government capacity,” which means that the page was a protected place for free speech under federal and state jurisdiction.
Randall initially set up the page to communicate with her constituents and she often posts about county business.
Her Chief of Staff also co-runs the page which the Judge found to be a use of county resources. Though there are valid reasons to ban individuals from public pages, Randall did not have any. At the end of the day, it seemed Randall was banning Davison because he challenged and criticized her politics.
Government is on the hook
Some have argued that since people have endless options to express themselves online, it does not make a difference if they are banned from a page or two.
However, when a government official chooses which comments should be shown based on their perspective, it is a violation of the first amendment, for now.