Supreme Court Sets Rules for Politicians Blocking Critics on Social Media

from The Wall Street Journal,

The Supreme Court on Friday opened the door to lawsuits against public officials for blocking critics on social media, but only when such actions deprive citizens of access to online posts that effectively serve as government communications. A unanimous high court set out the rules in a case involving a city manager in Port Huron, Mich., who used his personal Facebook page to post about his daughter and dog but also used the same account to announce some of the administrative directives he issued in his official capacity. In 2020, resident Kevin Lindke lodged complaints on the manager’s Facebook page about the city’s coronavirus response. The manager, James Freed, deleted Lindke’s posts and eventually blocked him from the page entirely. Lindke sued on free-speech grounds, arguing he had the right to comment on Freed’s Facebook page because it was a public forum. Two lower courts disagreed and ruled for Freed, including a U.S. appeals court that said the manager was acting in his personal capacity and didn’t operate his Facebook page to fulfill any actual or apparent duty of his office. Other courts have used different legal guideposts to judge such cases, and the Supreme Court intervened to resolve those differences. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the court, said lawsuits against public officials for social-media blocking were allowable only when the officials had authority to speak on behalf of the government and were purporting to use that power in their social-media communications. Public officials are allowed to have private lives, and they have their own speech rights that must be protected, Barrett said. “These officials too have the right to speak about public affairs in their personal capacities,” Barrett said. “Lest any official lose that right, it is crucial for the plaintiff to show that the official is purporting to exercise state authority in specific posts.”

With Friday’s ruling, the court sent the Michigan case back for further proceedings.

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