SCOTUS To Determine Whether Public Officials May Block Critics

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases this fall that intertwine free speech rights with government officials blocking critics on social media. And the controversy harkens back to a similar trial involving former President Donald Trump.

In one of the current cases, Garnier v. Poway Unified Sch. Dist., parents of three students sued two members of the Poway School board who blocked them on social media.

A federal judge in California ruled in favor of the couple, and last July the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.

However, another case ended differently for Kevin Lindke of Port Huron, Michigan. He sued City Manager James Freed in federal court after the official blocked him from his Facebook page.

This time a federal judge ruled for the defendant, and that ruling was upheld in July by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the California case, the two school board members identified themselves in their Facebook profiles as “government officials.” Both claimed that the parents’ posts interfered with readers seeing their own messages. The court disagreed, calling it a “pretext” for blocking their content.

The cases echo a 2018 decision by a federal judge that then-President Trump’s blocking Twitter users critical of him violated the First Amendment. The decision recognized Twitter as a public forum, and the judge declared that no government official is above the law.

A federal appeals court upheld that decision the following year. In that ruling, Judge Barrington D. Parker declared that the First Amendment prohibits public officials who use social media from barring specific users.

Making these exceptions, Parker ruled, blocks citizens out of an “otherwise open online dialogue” merely because the official disputed the commentary.

However, the legal dispute over Trump’s Twitter account reached the Supreme Court in 2021 only to see the justices end the court fight. They decided that since the 45th president had left office that the case was moot.

This action threw out the lower court’s ruling that Trump violated free speech rights.

Petitioners in both cases to go before the Supreme Court told the bench that the widely disparate outcomes in previous rulings signify a sharp divide in lower courts on the issue. Thus, they said it is up to the high court to settle the dispute.