U.S. Supreme Court to hear social media cases

SCOTUS to decide if First Amendment stops government officials from blocking social media critics

On April 24, the United States Supreme Court announced they will act in two cases to decide whether the First Amendment protects social media users from being blocked by government officials on their personal pages used to communicate their actions for their duties. One lawsuit has been brought up against local school district officials in California and the other lawsuit is against a city manager in Michigan.
In 2021, the Supreme Court faced a similar case involving former President Donald Trump and his effort to block critics from his Twitter account. The lower court’s decision of the case found that he violated constitutional free speech rights. Since Trump did not win the 2020 presidential election, the Supreme Court decided the case was moot, meaning that legal actions cannot be brought or continued after the matter at issue has been resolved, leaving no live dispute for a court to resolve.
The California case, O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier, involves Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane — who are elected members of Poway Unified School District. They blocked Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, the parents of three students for making posts about issues such as race and the handling of school finances.
The Garniers sued the two school district officials in federal court, claiming that their free speech rights were violated. The accounts that blocked the parents were claimed to be personal accounts. The district officials mentioned in their petition to the Supreme Court that even though they posted work-related information on their social media pages, these accounts were not created in conjunction with their jobs and the school district has no control over their personal accounts.
According to the Garniers’ court filing, both elected members had public Facebook pages identifying them as government officials. Zane’s page was titled “T.J. Zane, Poway Unified School District Trustee.” While in O’Connor-Ratcliff’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, she referred to herself as “President of the PUSD Board of Education” and linked her official email address.
The case was ruled in favor of the parents in 2021. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also found that the school board members had presented their social media accounts as “channels of communication with the public” about school board business.
The Michigan case, Lindke v. Freed, involves Kevin Lindke who was blocked on City Manager James Freed’s personal Facebook page after posting about COVID-19 criticism. Lindke also sued the federal court in violation of his free speech rights.
Freed’s Facebook page identified him as a “public figure,” and he posted about city programs and policies, despite the Facebook page being connected to the city manager’s personal account and not connected to the Office of the City Manager.
In this case, a federal judge ruled in favor of Freed. The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Freed had not been acting in his official capacity when he blocked Lindke from Facebook.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from the Michigan case, said the block function was unconstitutional only if the function is used as part of the page owner’s official duties or if the official’s governmental duties required him to operate the social media page.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from the California case, said that a government official’s personal social media page could be considered a public forum. Therefore, it would be covered by the First Amendment’s prohibitions against certain state action restricting public speech if the page owner was using the page to communicate about their official duties.
The two different outcomes of these cases are causing confusion within the lower courts on whether the First Amendment allows a government official to block social media users from commenting on personal pages.
The cases will be heard at the Supreme Court’s next term which starts in October.