US Judge Questions Whether Donald Trump Can Block Twitter Users

Danny Woods
March 10, 2018

The seven plaintiffs, though, are among "a few hundred" blocked by Trump, according to Ujala Sehgal, communications director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which also joined the suit. After all, it was a major news story when his account went down for 11 minutes.

Trump has not yet tweeted about the judge's suggestion. The case was brought before Judge Buchwald by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which is representing seven people who have been blocked - meaning they can not see his Twitter profile or his tweets - by Donald Trump.

Plaintiffs in the case blocked by the president include political consultant Rebecca Buckwalter, University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen, Grammy-nominated songwriter Holly Figueroa, Vanderbilt University surgeon Eugene Gu, former Guantanamo Bay prison guard Brandon Neely, retired cyclist Joseph Papp and comedy writer Nicholas Pappas. They contend that the president's Twitter account is a public forum and that, by virtue of his status as a government official, he can not block them on the platform because they offer views with which he disagrees. The President would be able to say "no thank you" to a protester, for example, or decide to tune someone out in a conversation, he said.

Midway through Thursday's proceeding, Buchwald offered an idea for a "settlement": by muting the unfriendly users rather than blocking them, Trump would be shielded from the criticism while the critics would still be able to engage freely.

Trump has been active on Twitter for several years and has blocked dozens of prominent users as a result, including novelist Stephen King.

Trump's tweets, which cover everything from public policy to what he sees on television and attacks on Democrats, are seen by millions of people and often draw tens of thousands of comments each.

In a Manhattan federal court on Thursday, US District Judge Naomi Reice pressed Michael Baer, an attorney with the Department of Justice representing President Trump, on whether Twitter was different from a public town hall, where government officials can't do something like cut the microphone to block unwanted opinions. US President Donald J. Trump speaks during a meeting with members of his Cabinet, in the Cabinet Room of the White House March 8, 2018 in Washington, DC.

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Katie Fallow, a lawyer for Knight, said that while muting was not a "perfect solution", it would be far less restrictive than blocking.

The former Central Intelligence Agency chief under President Obama went on to hit Trump for tweeting at actor Alec Baldwin over his "Saturday Night Live" impression of the president rather than responding to Putin, who announced the previous day the development of missiles he claimed would render defense systems "useless".

Fallow and Baer both agreed, with Fallow saying it was a "pretty good" solution though not ideal.

If Trump muted a user, he would not see that user's tweets, but the user could still see and respond to the president's tweets. Buchwald is considering motions from both sides seeking judgment in their favor.

If we were talking about Trump's official account, @POTUS, plaintiffs would have a case.

Barring a settlement, the judge told the parties she'd make a ruling soon.

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