I never cared about politics until last year, when two armed U.S. marshals banged on my door to serve me a congressional subpoena. As a medical student, I had performed research with fetal tissue at Stanford University to save the lives of babies with severe heart defects. Unfortunately, that research raised the ire of Marsha Blackburn, chairwoman of the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives.
I was asleep when the marshals startled me out of bed. The literal wake-up call made me realize that science involved more than just test tubes and white coats. There is a social and political component that cannot be ignored.
So I delved into social media to speak out politically. Soon I discovered the vibrant conversations under President Donald Trump’s tweets. It was like a national forum where even my small Twitter account could reach a large audience. If social media was an ocean, this was where the president chummed the waters. It was the epitome of free speech in all its power, beauty, and chaos.
My first viral tweet to Trump was a political cartoon celebrating the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision to reverse the Muslim travel ban. It got over 2,000 likes. A few days later I made a comment about how the “greatest witch hunt in American history” was the Salem witch trials against women. That tweet got over 4,000 likes and was featured on Twitter Moments. For the first time, it felt like I was finally being heard.
Then the president blocked me.
The tweet that supposedly triggered him was neither abusive nor vulgar. I simply said, “Covfefe: the same guy who doesn’t proofread his Twitter handles the nuclear button.” It got over 1,000 likes before he hit the block button.
While many may feel that it is a badge of honor to be blocked by the president, it certainly does not feel like that to me. In fact, it feels isolating. Millions of Americans have access to a public forum from which I am now excluded.
Holly Figueroa O’Reilly, another Twitter user blocked by Trump, introduced me to Katie Fallow, lead attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. After discussing my situation with Fallow, I agreed to join a lawsuit against the president to unblock me and many others. We believe it is a violation of our First Amendment rights for the president to exclude us from viewing and responding to his tweets.
Trump stated multiple times that his “very powerful social media” was a way to circumvent traditional media and talk directly to the people. Even his son Donald Trump Jr. used Twitter to disclose his explosive emails with a Russian lawyer directly to the public. While America’s founding fathers may not have envisioned something like Twitter, they certainly knew the importance of free speech to a democracy. They would have been outraged if the president could ban an American citizen from reading his announcements in a newspaper or book.
We have now extended those rights to both television and radio. If Twitter is somehow exempt, so too will be many new and emerging technologies. Blocking private citizens from reading a president’s communications threatens our democracy, our freedoms, and our future.
Eugene Gu is a resident physician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and president and CEO of the Ganogen Research Institute.