On Tuesday, July 11, the Knight First Amendment Institute filed a lawsuit in federal court against President Donald Trump over blocking individuals on his Twitter account.
The institute, a nonprofit affiliated with Columbia University, argues that Trump’s Twitter account is “a public forum under the First Amendment” because the president and his staff use it to communicate.
According to Bloomberg Politics, the institute requested that the court deem “‘viewpoint-based blocking’ by the president’s account unconstitutional, unblock the plaintiffs and pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees.”
Regardless of your opinions on Trump’s online behavior, the Tuesday lawsuit could have many social, corporate and journalistic implications.
Harassment vs. Freedom of Speech
According to a Pew Research Center survey, 41 percent of Americans have been personally subjected to online harassment, with as many as 18 percent of respondents claiming that they have been subject to more severe treatment, like sexual harassment, stalking or physical threats.
At a time when so many Americans claim to be so negatively affected by cyberbullying, it may be counterintuitive to set legal precedents that could take away users’ abilities to block harassers online in the future.
Although the lawsuit specifies that Trump should be penalized for “viewpoint-based blocking” as opposed to blocking in general, if these platforms are deemed as “public forums,” the precedent could easily be interpreted to protect users’ hateful speech in the future.
On the other hand, trying to curb “viewpoint-based blocking” may force users to interact with more diverse perspectives than usual, which could cultivate more interesting, productive discourse on the platform. Forcing opposing opinions to coexist in the same place could also help the general public better understand different political ideas.
Preventing people from censoring the opinions they do not want to see on their timeline could break ideological echo chambers that are currently prevalent on all social media platforms.
Impact on Private Companies
The decision could also affect how social media platforms monitor their users’ behavior and are allowed to conduct business in general.
Currently, social media applications are considered private institutions. Unlike public institutions, private institutions are not expected to uphold First Amendment protections.
However, if courts can treat Twitter as a “public forum,” social media companies could be forced to overhaul their terms of service to comply with government policy at the expense of their autonomy.
Is Social Media News?
In the lawsuit, the Knight First Amendment Institute considers Trump’s personal Twitter account “a public forum” because of how the administration uses the social media site to spread news directly to followers.
In an interview with “Fox and Friends,” Trump defended his decision not to attend the White House Correspondent’s Dinner and said that he used Twitter so frequently because he feels that the media purposefully misrepresents him.
“It allows me to give a message without necessarily having to go through people where I’m giving them a message and they’re putting it down differently from what I mean,” he said.
Despite this defense, Trump’s Twitter use at times serves more as an excuse to take jabs at the media establishment rather than the president relaying substantive, unbiased policy accomplishments to the American people.
And although many famous political pundits and networks cited this in their defense of negative Trump coverage, the president’s comments on news networks reflect how many American conservatives feel.
It seems like common knowledge that the public’s trust in media is at an all-time low, but according to a new Politico poll, people only marginally trust CNN (54 percent) more than the White House (52 percent) and Trump (46 percent).
The survey claims that “significant percentages of voters — mostly Republicans — think many outlets are either not too credible or not credible at all,” whereas left-leaning voters are more skeptical of the Trump administration and Congress.
Because of the tendency for right-leaning Americans to distrust them, many journalists publicly acknowledge that they should be trying to appeal more to conservatives. But reporting patterns speak louder than words.
Many conservatives cite what they perceive as abnormally critical coverage of the current administration when dismissing mainstream media coverage. According to a Shorenstein survey, 80 percent of Trump coverage was negative during his first 100 days of office.
This extreme amount of negative coverage may explain why many Americans are skeptical of the mainstream media, rendering the press’ intent meaningless. It also provides a rationalization for why many Americans are willing to accept the president’s social media statements as more legitimate than mainstream news coverage.
If a politician’s posts on social media can legitimately be considered news, should the platform monitor content for accuracy, just like a news publication would? And if this is the case, it seems that social media’s potential “responsibility” to purge false information falsifies the lawsuit’s assertion that social media sites ought not to allow viewpoint-based blocking.
No matter your opinions on the validity of the lawsuit, it most certainly brings up important debates central to the journalistic and social media communities in the Trump administration.