Critical Thinking: By Blocking Individuals on Twitter, is President Trump Violating the First Amendment?

The Knight First Amendment Institute has called for President Trump to unblock people from his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account, or face legal action. By excluding individuals on this public forum, is the president violating the First Amendment?

 

Shea Blake, 19, sophomore, Villanova University (Villanova, Pa.)

Blake is the opinion editor for the student-run newspaper, The Villanovan. She has written for the paper since 2016.

The primary argument made by The Knight First Amendment Institute against President Donald Trump revolves around the idea that his @realDonaldTrump account qualifies as a public forum which should be accessible to all individuals.

The official White House Twitter account, established at the same time he assumed the presidency, seems to support this idea by claiming to update users of “the latest from @POTUS @realDonaldTrump and his Administration.” Former press secretary Sean Spicer even said that Trump’s tweets are in fact considered official statements by the President of the United States.

However, the president’s @realDonaldTrump handle had been a personal Twitter account for nearly eight years prior to his inauguration. Although he may now be posting about politically relevant topics, it should still hold that this specific account concerns Trump as a person, not the President. There is an official White House account that can be used for professional means.

In addition, both accounts fall under the auspices of Twitter, which was not created as a means of conversation between the president and his citizens. Deeming the @realDonaldTrump account to be personal, Trump falls under the same rules as any other Twitter user. Twitter, being a private company and therefore having the ability to set their own rules, allows for users to block others.

The institute also said that users who are blocked have no ability to either access what the president has posted or offer up their opinions directly to him, which they believe is a clear violation of the First Amendment. This is not necessarily true as users who are blocked from the @realDonaldTrump account still have access to the information in question through not only other Twitter accounts, but other social and media platforms as well. Additionally, users who are blocked can continue to voice their opinion using these same methods, including their own Twitter account. While they may not be directly tweeting at Trump, they remain capable of freely expressing their opinions.

Perhaps we should also consider whether we are violating the First Amendment rights of Donald Trump by asking him to unblock users. Our country guarantees the right to free speech. It does not guarantee that others will listen. We must remember that with each right there is responsibility. In this case, we are responsible for a fair and equitable examination of the question in terms of both parties.

 

Gary Abernathy, 61, publisher and editor, The Times-Gazette (Hillsboro, Ohio)

Abernathy started his career in 1983, serving in various editorial roles at three Ohio newspapers. He has written several columns this year published in The Washington Post.

The decision by President Donald Trump and/or his communications team to block certain individuals from the president’s Twitter account is not a constitutional violation—but it’s a mistake that the president should voluntarily undo.

According to Poynter, the Knight First Amendment Institute claims, “Since blocking people from the Twitter account prevents them from reading Trump’s tweets, responding directly or engaging in discussion threads, it violates users’ constitutional free speech rights—as well as their right to petition the government for a redress of grievances…”

In fact, Twitter does not operate in a vacuum, especially when it comes to the president of the United States. President Trump’s tweets are widely circulated and reported well beyond Twitter’s own platform. Our own newspaper’s website carries the president’s Twitter feed, available to all whether or not they are Twitter users.

The Knight Institute argues that Trump’s Twitter feed has been “sanitized of dissent.” Even if true, the move does not prohibit anyone from voicing their opinions, pro and con, to the entire world through other social media platforms, including their own websites, Facebook pages or Twitter accounts. No one’s right to petition the government for a redress of grievances has been abridged.

But while the president’s control of his Twitter account is likely not a constitutional problem, it does represent an unfortunate decision by the leader of the free world. Donald Trump, as president, should foster an atmosphere that encourages the free exchange of ideas, even those that aggressively or even rudely challenge his own.

More than any other nation on earth, the United States supports diversity of opinion. We pride ourselves on defending everyone’s right to give voice to their point of view. In my own columns, both for our local paper and for The Washington Post, I have defended the president’s First Amendment right to criticize the media for its coverage of him.

Donald Trump is probably the most outspoken president we’ve ever had. His penchant for blunt talk endears him to some Americans, while outraging others. In turn, he should use the same standard he applies to himself when it comes to welcoming dissent on his own Twitter feed, even if he can legally do otherwise.

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Published: September 14, 2017

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