Supreme Court Decides Officials That Censor Citizens Can Be Sued

In a unanimous decision announced Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens who are blocked or muted on social media by public officials may, in some cases, sue those officials for violating their First Amendment rights.

The decision was based on two particular cases, one in Michigan and one in California, in which public officials blocked constituents who had made critical comments on social media.

The judges heard about three hours of arguments in late October.

The first case took place in Port Huron, Michigan. City Manager James Freed blocked Kevin Lindke after he left comments on Freed’s social media criticizing the city’s COVID-19 response.

The The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding a lower court decision ruled in favor of Freed, allowing officials to block constituents on social media, claiming that Freed was not acting in an official capacity, as the account was not maintained by the city.

The second case surrounded Poway Unified School District in San Diego, California. Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, a couple whose children attended school in the district made hundreds of comments on posts by Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane, members of the Board of Trustees. The couple were blocked from commenting on a school-related official Facebook page.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the couple, claiming that the Trustees were acting in their official capacity.

This ruling decided that officials could be sued for violating rights to free speech for blocking constituents if the official has the authority to speak on behalf of the state, and if the social media account claimed to use that authority.

“A public official who prevents someone from commenting on the official’s social-media page engages in state action under §1983 only if the official both (1) possessed actual authority to speak on the State’s behalf on a particular matter, and (2) purported to exercise that authority when speaking in the relevant social-media posts,” the court said in their decision on Lindke v. Freed.

“State officials have private lives and their own constitutional rights,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett said, “If page-wide blocking is the only option, a public official might be unable to prevent someone from commenting on his personal posts without risking liability for also preventing comments on his official posts,” she wrote. “A public official who fails to keep personal posts in a clearly designated personal account therefore exposes himself to greater potential liability.”