US Supreme Court throws out rulings on public officials blocking social media critics

By John Kruzel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday in a decision on free speech in the digital age set a stringent new standard for determining if public officials acted in a governmental capacity when blocking critics on social media – a test to be applied in lawsuits accusing them of violating the Constitution’s First Amendment.

First Amendment protections for free speech generally constrain government actors, not private individuals. Under the new test, officials are considered engaging in governmental action if they had “actual authority to speak on behalf of the state on a particular matter” and “purported to exercise that authority in the relevant posts.”

The justices in a pair of unanimous rulings threw out decisions by lower courts in cases from California and Michigan involving lawsuits brought under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment by people who were blocked after posting criticisms on the social media accounts of local officials.

The justices directed the lower courts to revisit the cases based on the new standard.

Blocking users is a function often employed on social media to stifle critics. The Supreme Court previously confronted the issue in 2021 in litigation over former President Donald Trump’s effort to block critics on X, called Twitter at the time, but failed to decide the matter by deeming the case moot after he left office.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases in October. The first involved two public school board trustees from the California city of Poway who appealed a lower court’s ruling in favor of parents who sued them after being blocked from the accounts of the officials on X and Facebook, which is owned by Meta Platforms.

The second case involved a Michigan man’s appeal after a lower court ruled against his lawsuit challenging a Port Huron city official who blocked him on Facebook.

President Joe Biden’s administration had sided with the officials in both cases. Free speech advocacy groups urged the justices to back the plaintiffs.

The California case involved Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane, elected trustees of the Poway Unified School District. They blocked Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, the parents of three students at district schools, after the couple made hundreds of critical posts on issues including race and school finances.

Zane and O’Connor-Ratcliff both had public Facebook pages identifying them as government officials. The parents sued O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane in 2017, arguing that their free speech rights under the First Amendment were violated.

A federal judge in California ruled that the parents’ First Amendment rights were violated and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that Zane and O’Connor-Ratcliff had presented their social media accounts as “channels of communication with the public” about school board business.

“When state actors enter that virtual world and invoke their government status to create a forum for such expression,” the 9th Circuit wrote, “the First Amendment enters with them.”

In the Michigan case, Port Huron resident Kevin Lindke sued in 2020 after City Manager James Freed blocked him from his public Facebook page following critical posts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lindke accused Freed of violating his First Amendment rights. Freed’s account also was a public Facebook page identifying him as a public figure.

A federal judge ruled in favor of Freed in 2021 and the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year agreed. The 6th Circuit found that Freed’s blocking of Lindke did not constitute an official act.

The justices also are expected to issue rulings by the end of June in other important cases involving speech on social media. One involves a challenge to Republican-backed state laws limiting the ability of social media platforms to remove or moderate content deemed objectionable or misinformation. Another involves a bid to prevent the Biden administration from encouraging such content moderation.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)

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