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Court Says Politicians Can’t Block Critics on Social Media

July 30, 2017, 6:17 PM UTC

On Thursday, a Virginia district court judge ruled a politician had committed “a cardinal sin under the First Amendment” by blocking a constituent on social media. That politician was not Donald Trump—but the decision could inform the outcome of a similar suit targeting the President’s behavior on Twitter.

The Virginia decision, thoroughly excerpted here by the Washington Post’s Eugene Volokh, centers on Phyllis Randall, the Chairwoman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. Plaintiff Brian Davison sued Randall for temporarily banning him from her Facebook page when he made critical comments.

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Though Randall argued that the page was personal, Judge James Cacheris ruled that she was using the account as a public official, for instance by soliciting comments from voters. Cacheris characterized Randall’s blocking of Davison, even temporarily, as “the suppression of critical commentary regarding elected officials.”

However, Cacheris also cautioned against overbroad interpretations of his decision, saying that officials do retain rights to moderate comments or responses online, for instance if posts are off-topic. And no penalty was imposed on Randall for her actions.

Still, the decision may bode well for a pending case brought against President Donald Trump on behalf of Americans he has blocked on Twitter. That case is being spearheaded by Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, which described the Virginia decision as providing “a roadmap” of how Trump’s Twitter behavior violates the First Amendment.