Court: Public officials cannot block critics from social media

A federal judge has ruled that public officials cannot block citizens from using their social media sites.  U.S. district judge James C. Cacheris ruled in the case of a Loudon, Va. county supervisor who blocked a Facebook user from accessing her account because his criticism offended her.  Cacheris wrote that the supervisor engaged in "viewpoint discrimination," which is prohibited under the First Amendment.

While the case dealt with a local matter, public officials from the president on down have routinely blocked some users.  It is unclear if Cacheris's ruling applies in the president's case, but it gives ammunition to those who are suing Trump for being blocked from his Twitter account.

New York Magazine:

According to The Wall Street Journal, "Brian Davison sued the chairwoman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, who temporarily banned him from her Facebook page after he posted criticism of local officials last year." Judge James Cacheris found that she had violated Davison's First Amendment rights by blocking him from leaving comment, because, in his judgment, the chairwoman, Phyllis Randall, was using her Facebook page in a public capacity. Though it was a personal account, she used it to solicit comments from constituents.

"The suppression of critical commentary regarding elected officials is the quintessential form of viewpoint discrimination against which the First Amendment guards," the judge stated in his ruling. Cacheris did emphasize that his ruling should not prohibit officials from moderating comments to protect against harassment. Davison was only banned for 12 hours, and Randall faces no penalties. Still, the ruling is one of the first in a growing, thorny legal issue surrounding social media that has already reached the White house.

No one wants to infringe on the right of a citizen to criticize a public official.  In this narrow case, the judge got it right.  The plaintiff alleged "corruption on the part of Loudoun County's School Board" in his Facebook comment.  While the accusation could be considered a smear since the plaintiff offered no evidence whatsoever for his charge, the judge ruled he couldn't be blocked for expressing his opinion.

The same does not hold true for the trolls and anonymous smear merchants who are routinely blocked from the president's Twitter account.  There must be a line drawn somewhere between legitimate critical expression and the name-calling, the invective, the vitriol, and the scurrilous charges made by trolls who have no intention of engaging in public discussions on the issues and are only looking for retweets and notoriety.

Can the courts successfully draw that line?  Probably not.  But I would like to see them try.  The bane of social media is the small minority of users who amuse themselves bullying those who cross them.  Some are organized gangs.  Others are individuals.  The fact is, more and more people in the public eye are abandoning social media because of it.

Should Trump be "big enough" to put up with the trolls?  If they were targeting only the president, you might think so.  But when the trolls go after Trump supporters who follow him, that's a different matter altogether.  That's why I believe that the courts should make an effort to delineate between legitimate critics and those who have no intention of engaging in meaningful dialogue.

A federal judge has ruled that public officials cannot block citizens from using their social media sites.  U.S. district judge James C. Cacheris ruled in the case of a Loudon, Va. county supervisor who blocked a Facebook user from accessing her account because his criticism offended her.  Cacheris wrote that the supervisor engaged in "viewpoint discrimination," which is prohibited under the First Amendment.

While the case dealt with a local matter, public officials from the president on down have routinely blocked some users.  It is unclear if Cacheris's ruling applies in the president's case, but it gives ammunition to those who are suing Trump for being blocked from his Twitter account.

New York Magazine:

According to The Wall Street Journal, "Brian Davison sued the chairwoman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, who temporarily banned him from her Facebook page after he posted criticism of local officials last year." Judge James Cacheris found that she had violated Davison's First Amendment rights by blocking him from leaving comment, because, in his judgment, the chairwoman, Phyllis Randall, was using her Facebook page in a public capacity. Though it was a personal account, she used it to solicit comments from constituents.

"The suppression of critical commentary regarding elected officials is the quintessential form of viewpoint discrimination against which the First Amendment guards," the judge stated in his ruling. Cacheris did emphasize that his ruling should not prohibit officials from moderating comments to protect against harassment. Davison was only banned for 12 hours, and Randall faces no penalties. Still, the ruling is one of the first in a growing, thorny legal issue surrounding social media that has already reached the White house.

No one wants to infringe on the right of a citizen to criticize a public official.  In this narrow case, the judge got it right.  The plaintiff alleged "corruption on the part of Loudoun County's School Board" in his Facebook comment.  While the accusation could be considered a smear since the plaintiff offered no evidence whatsoever for his charge, the judge ruled he couldn't be blocked for expressing his opinion.

The same does not hold true for the trolls and anonymous smear merchants who are routinely blocked from the president's Twitter account.  There must be a line drawn somewhere between legitimate critical expression and the name-calling, the invective, the vitriol, and the scurrilous charges made by trolls who have no intention of engaging in public discussions on the issues and are only looking for retweets and notoriety.

Can the courts successfully draw that line?  Probably not.  But I would like to see them try.  The bane of social media is the small minority of users who amuse themselves bullying those who cross them.  Some are organized gangs.  Others are individuals.  The fact is, more and more people in the public eye are abandoning social media because of it.

Should Trump be "big enough" to put up with the trolls?  If they were targeting only the president, you might think so.  But when the trolls go after Trump supporters who follow him, that's a different matter altogether.  That's why I believe that the courts should make an effort to delineate between legitimate critics and those who have no intention of engaging in meaningful dialogue.

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