Sorry Politicians, A Court Ruled That It’s Now Unconstitutional To Block Social Media Critics

A federal appeals court in Virginia ruled on Monday that elected officials can’t block their critics on social media, according to Reuters

In a 3-0 ruling, the judges of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that a Virginian official violated the Constitution by blocking a man from her Facebook page for 12 hours in 2016. The Hill reported that Phyllis Randall, who is the chair of the Loudon County Board of Supervisors, banned Brian Davison from her “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” page after he accused members on the Loudon County Board of Supervisors of corruption in a social media post. Davison reportedly commented on a post by Randall under the name of “Virginia SGP” after a town hall meeting. Ultimately, Randall removed her original post along with his comments and stripped him of access to her page. 

According to the report, Randall claimed that her Facebook page was meant for private audiences only. But judge James Wynn rejected her claim and said her profile’s “interactive component” made it a public page. He wrote in the opinion for the ruling that Randall had discriminated against Davison’s point of view by blocking him from her page, and that Davison’s speech “occupies the core of the protection afforded by the First Amendment.” 

Reuters also noted that the case’s subject was the first ever heard at the federal level. And even though the ruling specifically is for Virginia, it could affect other politicians across the country in the future. This includes President Trump. In May 2018, the U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled that Trump wasn’t allowed to block his critics on social media, NPR reports. 

Similar to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Buchwald decided that people were protected by the First Amendment. She ruled that anyone on social media could exercise their right to free speech as they would in public spaces, according to NPR. In her opinion, Buchwald wrote, “[N]o government official—including the President—is above the law and all government officials are presumed to follow the law as has been declared.” 

In response, Trump later appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan and requested to overturn Buchwald’s ruling. The Department of Justice, who represented Trump, called Buchwald’s ruling “fundamentally misconceived,” according to The Hill

Both cases, specifically Davison v Randall, have shown how social media has become a type of public place for its users. In 2017, the Supreme Court recognized that social media is “the most important” space right now “for the exchange of views.” Politicians heavily rely on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to curate a brand, as noted by Joshua Geltzer, who is the director of Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, to the Washington Post

“A platform has been created,” Geltzer said to the publication, “in which the government can’t allow the voices it likes and silence the one it doesn’t like.” 

As of right now, the ruling is restricted to the Virginia-area.