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Trump Sued For Blocking Twitter Users

A trying day for the Trump administration has turned more bizarre, when shortly after Donald Trump Jr. released the chain of emails released ahead of his correspondence with the Russian lawyer who had promised to deliver anti-Clinton information with the implied blessing of the Russian government, a free-speech group sued President Donald Trump for blocking Twitter users from his @realDonaldTrump account, arguing the practice violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit adds that because Trump frequently turns to Twitter to make policy statements, his account qualifies as a public forum from which the government cannot exclude people on the basis of their views. Twitter users are unable to see or respond to tweets from accounts that block them, although there is nothing preventing Trump from simply muting any accounts that bother him without the knowledge of the counterparty.

“President Trump’s Twitter account has become an important source of news and information about the government, and an important forum for speech by, to, or about the president,” Jameel Jaffer, an executive director at the Knight Institute said in a statement. “The First Amendment applies to this digital forum in the same way it applies to town halls and open school board meetings. The White House acts unlawfully when it excludes people from this forum simply because they’ve disagreed with the president.” 

The lawsuit was brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute, a non-profit organization affiliated with Columbia University, and joined by seven individual Twitter users, and claims that Trump blocked a number of accounts whose owners replied to his tweets with comments that criticized, mocked or disagreed with the president. The lawsuit, filed in Southern District of NY, claims that Trump's blocking of the accounts amounted to an unconstitutional effort to suppress dissent, although we are confident that Twitter itself would have certain things to say about the purpose of the "block" function which it has been touting in recent months as a way to evade trolls.

According to Bloomberg, the Knights First Amendment institute first warned it may seek an injunction in early June when they sent a letter to Trump, his counsel, press secretary, and social media director. At the time, the institute represented two Twitter users, both of whom said they were blocked after criticizing the president on the social media platform.

"Everyone being able to see the president's tweets feels vital to democracy," Joseph Papp, one of the seven Twitter users involved in the suit, said in a statement. As Reuters adds, Papp, an author, said he had been a registered Republican for 10 years and did not join the suit for political reasons, but that he "felt a deep sense of unease" when he was blocked.

The suit names Spicer and Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media, as defendants in addition to Trump. It asks for the blocking to be deemed unconstitutional and seeks an injunction to require the president to unblock users. The complaint follows a letter from the Knight Institute to Trump last month warning it would sue if users were not unblocked.

While the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment, as it probably has bigger fish to fry at this moment, last month Sean Spicer said Trump's tweets were considered "official statements by the president of the United States."

The Knight Institute's arguments may have merit, independent free speech and internet law scholars say, in part because Trump's tweets are used to announce policy decisions or can influence legislation. Previous cases involving politicians blocking users on Facebook may bolster its case.

The federal lawsuit, case number 1:17-cv-05205, is below.