My Weird Battle to Get the President to Unblock Me on Twitter
I don't really know how I wound up here.
Photo courtesy of author.
On May 31, at approximately 7:30 in the morning Eastern Time, the president of the United States of America blocked me on Twitter.
This was right after I had sent @realDonaldTrump a series of tweets advising him to spend more time with his 11-year-old son Barron instead of golfing every weekend. I also called him an "orange tyrant." I had been doing that sort of thing for a while, as part of a loose group of mostly left-leaning verified Twitter users who regularly tweet at Donald Trump—Twitter makes replies to Trump from verified users more visible than other replies, so a bunch of us take advantage of this to criticize, fact-check, and sometimes taunt the famously thin-skinned chief executive.
While it started as a funny pastime to call out Trump for his confusing, inconsistent, and false comments, it developed into something a bit more serious. On Tuesday, the White House admitted that Trump's tweets were "official statements," but even before that, these 140-character ramblings were obviously important. In the last few days alone Trump has started an international incident by tweeting about the London mayor's response to a terror attack and startling the entire world by taking an anti-Qatar stance on Twitter.
Trump's tweets make headlines every day, are referenced in congressional hearings, discussed at foreign policy summits, and a frequent topic at White House press briefings. They may even end up being referenced in the Supreme Court in arguments over Trump's travel ban. And who knows, maybe being one of several voices who routinely push back on his stream-of-consciousness nonsense could at the very least promote some small amount of political discourse, and maybe—somehow—make a difference. But I wasn't holding my breath.
Then Trump blocked me, and I'm pretty sure he did it himself.
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The night before, he tweeted the now-infamous line, "Despite the constant negative press covfefe," a bizarre typo that remained online from around midnight until about 6 AM. To me, that was evidence that Trump is the sole man behind his account, rather than his communications team. Figuring out which tweets are tapped out by the president and which come from his team is something of a media parlor game—but blocking me, the guy who tried to get high smoking coffee and drunk on kombucha? That's a petty, pointless move that had Trump's small fingerprints all over it.
Within a few days, I came to learn that I was not the only one to be censored. Following my block on May 31, about a dozen left-leaning journalists, pundits, and otherwise critics had also been blocked after posting replies to his timeline. The tweets that seemed to provoke the blocks ranged from fairly aggressive to innocuous. One writer called him "a flakey, orange, illiterate, racist lizard"; a famous cyclist simply tweeted "Greetings from Pittsburgh, Sir." Both were shut down.
I'm more than happy to admit that this whole thing sounds absolutely silly, but it also points to a unique question over whether or not the president should be silencing his critics in such a manner—even when the criticism is taking place on an insular, not-as-relevant-as-its-users-think social media platform. (Sorry, @jack.)
While some of us have found workarounds to continue taking part in the conversation, the blocks have undoubtedly created a chilling effect, with a number of users unable to reply to Trump, or were simply discouraged.
The question is, could these blocks constitute a violation of the First Amendment?
Twitter is a private service that is free to regulate its content as it sees fit. (And actually, some people think it should do a little more regulating.) But Donald Trump is not a private citizen, and the presidency has some fairly strict and extensive rules governing lines of communication.
I don't understand any of them because I studied film and psychology in college. So instead, I've been working with DC attorney Nicole J. Monsees to help understand the legal issues surrounding this case. I've also joined an effort by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University to get Trump to unblock his critics.
On Tuesday, lawyers at Knight sent Trump a letter demanding he unblock us on the grounds that these blocks violate our freedom of speech due to what @realDonaldTrump represents. "This Twitter account operates as a 'designated public forum' for First Amendment purposes, and accordingly the viewpoint-based blocking of our clients is unconstitutional," reads the letter.
The relevant body of law is a set of rules concerning how the government interacts with the public in open forums. In the offline world, private buildings are sometimes used to host town hall meetings, for instance, and when they are, these meetings fall under something called the "Public Forum Law."
In essence, meetings between government officials and constituents are presumed to be a public space, like a street corner or a public park. While there may be certain rules that all participants must adhere to (no nudity or violent threats, for example), government officials are theoretically not allowed to limit criticism or otherwise divergent viewpoints at such meetings.
Does Public Forum Law apply online as well? Monsees pointed to a number of cases where courts found that it did.
One legal fight that began in 2012, Hawaii Defense Foundation v. City and County of Honolulu, came about after the Honolulu Police Department's Facebook page removed comments in which a user accused the department of "getting your internet nazi powers rolling early in the morning." Problematically, the department's Facebook page indicated that it was "a forum open to the public," and the ensuing lawsuit, which took two years to resolve, cost Honolulu about $31,000 in attorney fees, and forced them to establish new social media policies.
One could argue that @realDonaldTrump is Trump's private account and therefore not subject to the same rules as @POTUS, the official presidential account. But @realDonaldTrump's tweets are official statements just as @POTUS's tweets are.
Relatedly, @realDonaldTrump's tweets are also likely subject to the Presidential Records Act of 1978. After lawmakers in both parties and the National Archives told the White House that presidential tweets—even those deleted because of misspellings—should be preserved for posterity, administration officials reassured everyone that they were being properly saved.
The current Knight Foundation legal effort is about more than just Trump. He won't be the last president to rely on social media, and it's important to set standards for what presidents can and can't do when it comes to limiting the discourse that occurs on their pages. That discourse might be inane and insulting—but hey, so are many of Trump's tweets.
Follow Jules Suzdaltsev on Twitter, where he is still tweeting at Trump.