America’s Tweeter-in-Chief’s ability to be a public official but still act like a private individual was reigned in today by a federal judge’s ruling.
President Trump has been able to use Twitter to deliver his personal and official views, decisions, and complaints directly to the public, bypassing the traditional White House communications channels and addressing those he either wants praise or damn.
When the President does not like a tweet or reply to one of his tweets from one of his more than 52 million followers on Twitter, he blocks that person from being able to see what Trump is tweeting or to have the users tweet seen by the president.
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Today, New York District Court Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled that while Trump can tweet as much as he wants, he cannot block people from seeing his account or tweeting things he will be able to view just because he does not agree with them.
— Knight 1st Amendment (@knightcolumbia) May 23, 2018
The suit was brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University in New York City on its own behalf and on behalf of seven people who have had their access to Trump’s twitter account blocked by the president.
The judge rejected Trump’s lawyers claim that his right to tweet as he chooses is his First Amendment right and that as president, he cannot be forced to obey a court order.
The court says that no one, not even the president, is above the law and that by his use of Twitter as an official mouthpiece he has given up his rights as an individual.
The court provides analysis as to why this is not an issue of Trump’s First Amendment rights of free speech because he has turned his Twitter account into an official government source of news.
“We hold,” writes the judge, “that portions of the @realDonaldTrump account — the “interactive space” where Twitter users may directly engage with the content of the President’s tweets…is a designated public forum, and that the blocking of the plaintiffs based on their political speech constitutes viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment.”
“We reject (Trump’s) contention…that the President’s personal First Amendment interests supersede those of plaintiffs.”
While Trump started his Twitter account in 2009, the court points out that since his inauguration in January 2017 the president has used it “as a channel for communicating and interacting with the public about his administration.”
The court points out it is now registered “to Donald J. Trump, ‘45th President of the United States of America, Washington, D.C.”
The judge notes that Trump often “uses the account to announce matters related to official government business before those matters are announced to the public,” such as his announcement of the choice of Christopher Wray to head the FBI and his firing of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.
The court also notes that the “National Archives and Records Administration has advised the White House that the President’s tweets…are official records that must be preserved under the Presidential Records Act.”
“When the government, adds the judge, “is speaking on its own behalf, the First Amendment strictures that attend the various types of government-established forums do not apply.”
The judges dropped Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders from the suit because she does not have direct control of Trump’s Twitter account, but kept in the legal opinion Dan Scavino, who does have access and helps Trump operate the account and tweet.
The court leaves any future relief for each individual in the suit to others and says it expects Trump as a public official will do his duty and stop his improper behavior – which means restoring those he blocked and not blocking anyone else.
Trump has long operated as if he is above the law, but what this ruling shows is that even the president is subject to the laws of the land, and to refuse to obey them could carry consequences.
While this suit is just about Twitter, it shows the legal authority of the courts to rule over the Executive branch and to hold the nation’s highest elected official to the same standard as any other person when it comes to obeying the law.
“The Supreme Court,” writes the judge, “has expressly rejected the notion of ‘an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances,” id. at 704 (quoting United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 706 (1974).”
Those are precedent that could be important as the Special Counsel and others continue to probe Trump’s actions, collusion with Russia, obstruction of justice and other actions that violate the law.
Trump will likely appeal this decision, which means months or years more of litigation, but the ruling is carefully written and clearly states that Trump as president can be held to the law of the land, even if he thinks he is above it.