WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — The Supreme Court is diving into the controversial debate over whether public officials should be allowed to block constituents on their social media accounts.
On Tuesday, the justices heard two different cases exploring the free speech clash between public officials and critical commenters.
The cases center on lawsuits filed by people who were blocked by government officials after posting numerous critical comments on their social media pages.
Georgetown Law professor Caroline Fredrickson says there are First Amendment issues on both sides of the argument.
“You have the right not to be harassed on your private social media accounts. But you have the right to criticize your government and criticize public officials,” Fredrickson said.
Pamela Karlan is one of the lawyers representing the side of the blocked constituents. She insists being blocked violated their free speech rights, and should be interpreted as “state action”, and subject to the same rules as government actions.
“Refusing to find state action would have devastating consequences for the public, because they would be denied access to the sites on which their officials are talking to them and asking for their reactions,” Karlan said.
Hashim Mooppan is a lawyer for the government officials, and argued the case demonstrates a distinction between private and public actions.
“People have the right, as government officials, to talk about their jobs in their personal capacity. And you should assume that when they do that on their own personal property, they’re acting in their personal capacity,” Mooppan said.
Frederickson said the key determination for the justices will be when personal accounts cross the line into official public business.
“When does it become a government act, and thus they’re subject to first amendment constraints,” Fredrickson said.
As government officials increasingly rely on social media to get out important messages, it matters who can access them.
“It’s a vital tool, and to the extent that people are blocked from government officials’ social media accounts, that can be highly problematic,” Fredrickson said.
She predicts the court’s decision will be nuanced, and not explicitly pick a winning side. Instead, she expects they will land somewhere in the middle, and outline what makes an account private.
“You can’t move all your government business over to your private account and decide who gets access. So I think they’ll find a line hopefully that’s workable, that gives people some good guidance,” Fredrickson said.
The rulings in the cases are expected by early summer.