Mar 15, 2024 - Politics & Policy

SCOTUS determines rules for public officials blocking users on social media

Illustration of the facebook logo sitting on a scale

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Public officials can block someone from their social media feed if posting is not part of the person's official job duties, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a unanimous opinion Friday.

Why it matters: The court delineated when a government official can and cannot impose limits on who can see the official's content in the context of the employee's duties.

  • "The threshold inquiry to establish state action is not whether making official announcements could fit within a job description but whether making such announcements is actually part of the job that the State entrusted the official to do," Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote in the court's opinion.

The intrigue: The ACLU said in its interpretation of the opinion, "government officials can be held accountable when they censor or restrict access to their social media posts, while protecting public officeholders' own free speech rights as private citizens."

Catch up quick: The Supreme Court's consideration stems from an incident involving James Freed, city manager of Port Huron, Michigan. Freed posted on Facebook about the COVID-19 pandemic after its onset.

  • He occasionally deleted comments that he considered "derogatory," including that of user Kevin Lindke, whom he eventually blocked.
  • Lindke, who opposed how the city handled COVID regulations, argued to courts that he had the First Amendment right to comment on Freed's page as a "public forum."

The latest: The Supreme Court said that Freed acted within his own First Amendment rights by blocking Lindke, rather than restricting the commenter's rights.

  • "For social-media activity to constitute state action, an official must not only have state authority, he must also purport to use it," the court said.

The fine print: Freed's page was not designated as either personal or official. He created it years before becoming city manager in 2014.

  • His posts included information related to his job and personal life.

Context: The Supreme Court didn't specify how the standard it set in Lindke v. Freed applies to a separate case in California but instead left that application for a lower court to handle.

  • In the other case, O'Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier, parents with children in the Poway Unified School District sued Board of Trustee members after they were blocked from commenting on the trustees' social media posts about their operations.
  • The Supreme Court said its opinion in Lindke v. Freed resolves "a Circuit split about how to identify state action in the context of public officials using social media."

Go deeper: Supreme Court hears Florida, Texas social media cases

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