The Supreme Court has vacated a ruling that prevented former president Donald Trump from blocking people on Twitter through his personal account, @realDonaldTrump. The US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York upheld a ruling that Trump could not block his critics on the platform, because he used it as a means of communication with the public while in office.
After Trump lost his bid for re-election, the Justice Department urged SCOTUS to deem the case as moot. It argued in a January brief that because the account was Trump’s personal one and the plaintiffs sued him in his capacity as president, he would “no longer be a party to this case” after President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
SCOTUS agreed with the DoJ. “Because of the change in Presidential administration, the Court correctly vacates the Second Circuit’s decision,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote.
The ruling won’t matter much to Trump, however. Twitter permanently banned him “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” in the wake of the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. He’s reportedly planning to launch his own social network.
The lower-court decision had implications for other elected officials and how they communicate on social networks. “The public interest in preventing impermissible viewpoint discrimination in government-operated social media accounts weighs heavily in favor of keeping the Second Circuit’s judgment in place,” the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which sued Trump in this case, wrote in a brief. The institute agreed that the ruling was moot, but instead claimed that it was because of Trump’s Twitter ban.
Under the First Amendment, US government officials and entities can’t suppress opposing viewpoints. Last year, the Army was criticized for blocking someone who asked about war crimes on its Twitch channel.
“While we would have liked the Supreme Court to leave the Second Circuit’s ruling on the books, we’re gratified that the appeals court’s reasoning has already been adopted by other courts, and we’re confident it will continue to shape the way that public officials use social media,” Knight Institute executive director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Justice Thomas wrote separately to note that while the plaintiffs had a point that “some aspects of Mr. Trump’s account resemble a constitutionally protected public forum,” there was a “principal legal difficulty that surrounds digital platforms — namely, that applying old doctrines to new digital platforms is rarely straightforward.” He suggested that it was odd to determine an elected official’s Twitter account could be deemed “a government forum when a private company has unrestricted authority to do away with it.”
He also wrote it was unprecedented for a “few private parties” to hold “the concentrated control of so much speech,” and added that, “We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.”
Updated 4/5 1:55PM ET: Added a statement from the Knight Institute.
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