Supreme Court will decide if government officials can block social media critics

Supreme Court will decide if government officials can block social media critics
Written by Techbot

The Supreme Court will soon hear two cases that could decide whether or not government figures can block their critics on social networks. The court has agreed to tackle appeals from California and Michigan residents who claim officials violated First Amendment free speech rights by blocking them on social media in response to critical commentary.

In California, Christopher and Kimberly Garnier believe Poway Unified School District members Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and TJ Zane unfairly blocked them on Facebook and Twitter for writing hundreds of critical comments on talking points like school budgets and race. Michigan’s Kevin Lindke, meanwhile, says City Manager James Freed violated his rights by blocking him on Facebook over criticism regarding the pandemic.

The cases have had different outcomes so far. A federal judge sided with the Garniers in 2021, and an appeals court upheld the decision noting that O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane both used their social accounts in an official role. However, the federal judge in the other case ruled for Freed in 2021, who won an appeal in 2022. Freed wasn’t acting as City Manager when he blocked Lindke, the judges found.

Cases like this took the spotlight in 2019, when then-President Trump and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez both faced accusations they violated free speech rights by banning critics. To date, courts have typically ruled based on whether or not officials are using their accounts for business. Even a personal account used for official activity amounts to a public space where criticism must be allowed, a federal appeals court found when hearing Trump’s case. These issues haven’t reached the Supreme Court until now. The legal body’s decisions could settle the question and force officials to allow critics so long as the posts don’t amount to harassment or threats. 

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