Like many Americans, Missourian Mike Campbell follows his elected officials on Twitter. That is, he did—until his state representative, Cheri Toalson Reisch, blocked him after he retweeted comments critical of her.
We’ve seen other public officials, including President Trump, try to block on Twitter people whose views they don’t like. Our constitution doesn’t allow this. The First Amendment protects our right to speak out about and criticize politicians. And it goes even further. It also protects our rights to receive communications from public servants without regard to our political views.
We made those arguments in a friend-of-the-court brief EFF filed in a case brought against the President for blocking people, and the court agreed with us. We filed another such brief last week in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in the case Campbell brought against Reisch.
From small-town mayors to members of Congress, governmental officials at all levels have adopted social media to communicate with the public. Through their social media accounts, elected representatives converse with their constituents and connect with their communities. They invite feedback, answer questions, and engage in policy debates. And, now more than ever, they play a pivotal role in disseminating information and public health orders about disasters such as the COVID-19 epidemic. Through these accounts, government agencies and health officials provide critical guidance about how people can take care of themselves and their loved ones.
Denying disfavored people access to government social media accounts doesn’t just freeze them out of important policy announcements or prevent them from monitoring the performance of their elected representatives. Given the frequent use of social media to convey authoritative public health and safety information, blocking people from these feeds also endangers lives.
Politicians may not like to see critics on their Twitter feed. But as elected representatives using Twitter to communicate government business, they can’t pick and choose who gets to receive their messages. Doing so is not only shameful, particularly in this moment of crisis, but it is also a blatant violation of the First Amendment.
When the government opens a channel of communication to the general public, the Constitution has always prevented it from excluding specific individuals because of their political viewpoints. As we have explained before, blocking individuals from generally accessible government social media feeds is no different. And every federal appeals court that has considered this issue has agreed.
Following their lead, the district court in this case correctly concluded that Representative Reisch violated Mike Campbell’s First Amendment rights when she blocked him in response to his criticism. We urge the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to say the same.