In the shadow of Trump tweets, the Supreme Court outlines when officials can be sued for social media use

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Friday that members of the public can sue public officials for obstructing public officials on social media platforms in certain circumstances, deciding a pair of cases stemming from former President Donald Trump's controversial and colorful use of Twitter.

The court unanimously ruled that officials can be considered “state actors” when using social media and can therefore face lawsuits if they block or disable a member of the public.

In two cases before the justices, the disputes involving a school board member in Southern California and a city manager in Michigan should be sent to lower courts to apply for a new legal review.

In a ruling written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court acknowledged that “it is difficult to tell whether speech is official or private” because of how social media accounts are used.

The court held that conduct on social media can be considered state action when the official in question “has actual authority to speak on behalf of the state” and is “allegedly exercising that authority.”

Although the officials in both cases had low profiles, the ruling applies to all public officials who use social media to engage with the public.

During oral arguments in October, Trump's use of Twitter — before it was renamed X — was frequently mentioned as the justices considered the practical implications.

These cases have raised the question of whether public officials' posts and other social media activities are part of their government functions. In ruling that it could, the Court found that preventing an officer from complying is governmental action that gives rise to a constitutional claim.

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But the court clarified that conditions must be met for a claim to go forward, noting that government officials are also “private citizens with their own constitutional rights.”

Determining whether a claim can go forward is not based on whether the person is a government official, but on the substance of the conduct in question, he added.

Factors such as whether the account is officially marked and whether the official is using his legal authority to issue a formal notice can be taken into account, Barrett said.

“In some circumstances, the content and activity of the post may make the plaintiff's case a slam dunk,” he added.

Trump was sued during his presidency and the courts ruled against him, noting that he often used his Twitter account to make official announcements. But the case was taken up for trial after he left office in January 2021.

At the time, Twitter disabled Trump's account, although the company's new owner, Elon Musk, has reversed course as part of a larger overhaul that included changing the site's name. However, in other disputes, courts have reached other conclusions.

Under the Supreme Court's new test, it appears Trump would have lost the earlier case. Barrett briefly mentioned Trump's case in a footnote, pointing out that when an X user blocks someone, the blocked person cannot see any user's posts containing official announcements.

“We are pleased that the court recognized that public officials must comply with the First Amendment when they use their private social media accounts in the course of their official duties, as former President Trump did with his Twitter account,” said an attorney, Katie Fallow. Trump was sued by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

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The California lawsuit arose after two members of the Poway Unified School District Board of Trustees, Michelle O'Connor-Ratcliff and TJ Zane, blocked parents Christopher and Kimberly Garnier from commenting on their Facebook page in 2017. Garnier responded to his Twitter posts. Jane left office.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the couple in 2022, upholding a similar decision by a federal judge in the Southern District of California. The Court of Appeal concluded that the elected officials were acting in their official capacities.

The controversy began in Michigan in March 2020, when Port Huron City Manager James Freed, an appointed official who described himself as a “public figure” on his Facebook page, posted information there about the city's efforts to deal with the Covid pandemic. After resident Kevin Lindke posted comments criticizing the city's response, Freed blocked him.

He argued that the Facebook page is no longer active, a personal page he uses to share pictures of his family and comment on his daily activities. The 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's ruling, holding in June 2022 that Freed was not acting in his official capacity and therefore his Facebook activity did not constitute state action.

Freed's page was somewhat different from the one at issue in the school board case because it included more personal content, making it less clear whether it was an official page.

The court is grappling with a whole range of free speech issues related to social media during its current term, which runs until June.

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