WASHINGTON — President Trump’s frequent Twitter pronouncements have often been a source of controversy, riling Democrats and Republicans alike, but another, more covert social media habit threatens to push the White House into legal trouble.
Last month, seven individuals blocked by the president’s @realDonaldTrump Twitter account filed a lawsuit in conjunction with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Their argument: Trump had curtailed First Amendment rights by blocking their access to speak freely in a public forum.
“The First Amendment applies to this digital forum in the same way it applies to town halls and open school board meetings,” said Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s executive director. “The White House acts unlawfully when it excludes people from this forum simply because they’ve disagreed with the president.”
The Internet can be a cruel place, and tweets can bring out extreme opinions and language, as people fight to stick out in an already polarizing atmosphere. Some Twitter users have come to use the “block” button as a way to impose a sense of civility and insulate themselves from hate speech. But as government employees adopt similar tactics against those who voice disagreement with the president, some are wondering where to draw the line.
Trump blocked Zack Hunt, a pastor and faith blogger from Tennessee, after he insulted the video editing in a slideshow tweeted by the president from his personal account, @realDonaldTrump.
“Unless a threat of violence or something similarly criminal is occurring, I do not think it is OK for politicians to block people on social media,” Hunt said. “They hold public office and as such are accountable to the public that elected them.”
In an e-mail, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, refused to comment for this story, citing ongoing litigation. Previously, while acknowledging that Trump’s Twitter feed represents official statements from the president, administration officials have not commented on his willingness to block citizens.
“My use of social media is not Presidential - it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL,” Trump tweeted in July. “I won the 2016 election with interviews, speeches, and social media. I had to beat the #FakeNews and did.”
In response to the Knight Institute lawsuit, the Justice Department argued that “it would send the First Amendment deep into uncharted waters to hold that a president’s choices about whom to follow, and whom to block, on Twitter — a privately run website that, as a central feature of its social-media platform, enables all users to block particular individuals from viewing posts — violate the Constitution.”
Twitter officials did not respond to requests for their take on the issue.
Danielle Citron, a prominent law professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in online harassment, wrote in November that she believes Trump has the right to block whomever he pleases, as do all Twitter users.
“The choice to block is no different from a decision to decline an invitation to a conference,” Citron wrote at the time.
But in an interview Wednesday, Citron said her views had changed. Since Trump has come to use his personal account for official government business — announcing changes in military policy and staffing through his @realDonaldTrump handle — Citron now says the president could be violating the First Amendment by blocking dissenting viewpoints.
“The facts on the ground have changed,” Citron said. “For a while I was skeptical about the argument that @realDonaldTrump was a public forum, but I’m not anymore. He’s using it as the voice of the government and speaking on behalf of the government.”
“To me, it’s censorship of viewpoints,” Citron said. “He’s blocking people because he doesn’t like what they’re saying.”
Her position is buoyed by a July decision in a Virginia court, where a trial judge ruled that a local politician could not ban dissenters from his Facebook page.
In that case, the politician, like Trump, had used the page for governmental tasks, inviting constituents to discuss matters in what became a virtual public forum. By blocking any individual from this space for political reasons, the judge said, the politician violated constituents’ right to political speech, a bedrock of the American ideal.
“If the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence makes anything clear, it is that speech may not be disfavored by the government simply because it offends,” the judge wrote in a lengthy decision.
“The Court cannot treat a First Amendment violation in this vital, developing forum differently than it would elsewhere simply because technology has made it easier to find alternative channels through which to disseminate one’s message,” the decision read.
There is no official tally of how many people the president and other White House officials have blocked on Twitter, though the number is certainly in the dozens.
For this story, the Globe spoke with several people across the country with various professions, motivations, and levels of social media activity. Yet all shared a common experience: At some point they had replied to a presidential tweet with a pithy comment or joke, which had clearly caught the attention of someone on the @realDonaldTrump account. And they were subsequently blocked.
Trump has blocked celebrities with large followings, such as author Stephen King and supermodel Chrissy Teigen. He has blocked people like Angela Belcamino, a New York actress who insulted the president’s golf game in August.
In an interview, Belcamino said she worries she may now miss critical information.
“It’s crazy, because now he’s tweeting about supposedly official White House statements, and I can no longer see them,” she said. “Having a voice is really important to me, and that’s been taken away.”
Hunt, the Tennessee pastor, was blocked by the president on Aug. 10. His offense: attacking a slideshow Trump had tweeted of himself set to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
“We finally have a definitive impeachable offense,” Hunt wrote to Trump. “This video is [a] blatant violation of child labor laws as it was clearly made by a 3rd grader.”
This is not the first president to use new technology to try to reach his constituents, but Trump’s personal wielding of social media has challenged long-held norms and ideals. His most recent contemporary, Barack Obama, was the first president to have a Twitter account, though most tweets were standard musings from White House aides. Obama did not block any dissenters, according to most political observers, and rarely used the medium to break or spread news.
Trump, on the other hand, has a quick trigger finger. A veterans group was blocked for criticizing Republican plans to reduce Medicaid funding. Last week, Trump blocked Christopher Rich, a composer, after Rich used the hashtag #bigotPresident in a reply to the president’s tweet.
The White House is “transforming a public forum into an echo chamber,” said Katie Fallow, a senior attorney at the Knight Institute. “Its actions violate the rights of the people who’ve been blocked and the rights of those who haven’t been blocked but who now participate in a forum that’s being sanitized of dissent.”
Tara Dublin, an Oregon voice-over artist, has been blocked by Trump and three of his children, Ivanka, Eric, and Donald Jr. She tries to own her predicament as a badge of honor. The president “blocked me, and then he unblocked me, and then he reblocked me again,” Dublin said laughing.
Eugene Gu, a surgeon resident in Tennessee, sees it differently. Gu was blocked for mocking the president’s penchant for misspellings. “I don’t think censorship is ever a badge of honor,” Gu said. “How is it a good thing to not be able to speak?”
Astead W. Herndon
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