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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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Supreme Court wrestles with social media cases with echoes of Donald Trump


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court wrestled Tuesday with whether public officials can block critics from commenting on their social media accounts, an issue that first arose in a case involving former President Donald Trump.

The justices heard arguments in two cases involving lawsuits filed by people who were blocked after leaving critical comments on social media accounts belonging to school board members in Southern California and a city manager in Port Huron, Mich., northeast of Detroit.

The cases force the court to deal with the competing free speech rights of public officials and their constituents, and all in a rapidly evolving virtual world.

“More and more of our democracy operates on social media,” Justice Elena Kagan said during three hours of arguments.

The cases are part of a term-long focus on the relationship between government and the private digital platforms. Justice Clarence Thomas hinted at coming cases when he described as “the looming elephant in the room” the power of Facebook and other platforms to take down accounts.

Early next year, the court will evaluate Republican-passed laws in Florida and Texas that prohibit large social media companies from taking down posts because of the views they express. The tech companies said the laws violate their First Amendment rights. The laws reflect a view among Republicans that the platforms disproportionately censor conservative viewpoints.

Also on the agenda is a challenge from Missouri and Louisiana to the Biden administration’s efforts to combat controversial social media posts on topics including COVID-19 and election security. The states argue that the administration has been unconstitutionally coercing the platforms into cracking down on conservative positions.

Tuesday’s cases delving into the common use of social media by public officials are less overtly partisan. But they are similar to a case involving Trump and his decision to block critics from his personal account on Twitter, now known as X. The justices dismissed the case after Trump left office.

The @realdonaldtrump account had more than 88 million followers, but Trump argued that it was his personal property.

“But he seems to be doing, you know, a lot of government on his Twitter account,” Kagan said. “I mean, sometimes he was announcing policies. Even when he wasn’t, I mean, I don’t think a citizen would be able to really understand the Trump presidency, if you will, without any access to all the things that the president said on that account.”