ACLU Statement on Supreme Court’s Decision Related to Whether Public Officials Can Block Social Media Followers

March 15, 2024 1:00 pm

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WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Friday clarified when public officials’ social media posts are subject to the First Amendment in response to two challenges, O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier and Lindke v. Freed.

“We're gratified by the court's ruling today, which underscores that the First Amendment restricts how the government can shape speech that takes place on social media," said Evelyn Danforth-Scott, ACLU staff attorney specializing in Supreme Court litigation. "It gives everyday Americans a way to hold officials constitutionally accountable when they censor social media content, restrict access to it, or improperly elevate certain viewpoints over others. At the same time, it protects public officeholders’ own free speech rights by giving them guidance on how to make clear when they are speaking as private individuals.”

Both cases involved local officials who had blocked or censored critical constituents from Facebook and X (formerly Twitter); the constituents then sued, saying denying them access violated their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court ruled that social media posts and curation efforts by government officials can be attributed to the state, and, therefore, subject to First Amendment scrutiny, only if the speaker has the authority to speak on the state’s behalf and purports to exercise that authority through their relevant social media presence.

The ruling follows friend-of-the court briefs filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Michigan, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, which acknowledged that the First Amendment guarantees public officials’ right to free speech in their private capacities, but argued that when public officials appear to represent their government offices online, they are acting in their government capacities and so are subject to the First Amendment’s prohibitions on government censorship.

These cases are part of ACLU’s Joan and Irwin Jacobs Supreme Court Docket.

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