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Ocasio-Cortez Apologizes for Blocking Critic on Twitter

by | Jun 11, 2020 | First Amendment, Media Law

While our courts continue to apply and set precedents for free speech liberties in the digital age, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is receiving accolades for her handling of the First Amendment violation suit against her for blocking a critic on Twitter. 

And you’ll never guess where the praise is coming from: the Knight First Amendment Institute. That’s right — the same organization that filed suit against President Donald Trump for blocking critics from his Twitter feed, and that filed the lawsuit against AOC in the first place!

Last year, a Virginia Court ruling on a similar situation set the pace. My take then was that the VA opinion would become a guidepost for other courts across the land on these matters.

Court of Appeals Rules Official Social Media Pages are Public Forums

When a local elected official in Virginia blocked several users from his Facebook page, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that he was violating the First Amendment by doing so. 

The profile page in question was found to “bear the hallmarks of a public forum,” meaning posts there qualified as public speech. Because of this, they could not be restricted based solely on viewpoints contrary to the local official’s beliefs. 

That isn’t to say that public officials can’t maintain private social media pages. The emerging precedent is this: if you are a public official and utilize your personal social platforms to share official business, those private pages are then automatically deemed a public forum.

When a personal social media platform is used as a public forum, it changes from private to public and it is then subject to First Amendment liberties.

3-Judge Panel Rules Similarly in Lawsuit against President Trump

Following the Virginia court ruling, a federal appeals court upheld a previous decision that President Trump can’t block critics from his Twitter account because he doesn’t agree with what they say.

During those court proceedings, President Trump’s defense team argued that his Twitter account was personal. However, prosecutors brought forth compelling evidence of it being public, including “official” tweets about White House decisions and public video recordings of his representatives stating that the account was an official forum.  

In a statement, Knight’s director Jameel Jaffer said the Institute’s purpose for filing these lawsuits – against the Virginia official, the President of the United States, and Representative Ocasio-Cortez – is to “bring the free speech rights that exist in the physical world into digital life,” and they are applauding AOC for her response.  

Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s Perspective Shifts

The lawsuit against her arose from her own effort to block a former elected leader from her Twitter feed. She was called to give a deposition in the lawsuit. After the ruling in President Trump’s Twitter case, but before her testimony in the lawsuit, Ocasio-Cortez issued a statement apologizing to him. 

The case was originally brought against her when the former official was blocked from Ocasio-Cortez’s account. She originally felt that he did not have the right to force her to endure what she considered harassment and abuse. 

But after the Trump ruling and after the former official said “Suddenly, [he] could not be part of the conversation…” and that his “mouth was closed, shut,” she seems to have gained a new perspective.  

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said, “I have reconsidered my decision to block Dov Hikind from my Twitter account…Mr. Hikind has a First Amendment right to express his views and should not be blocked from them.” 

Prosecutors Praise AOC’s Public Apology

Mr. Hikind himself told reporters he was pleased with her response, saying, “She now recognizes that her decision to block me was wrong…What can I say? I couldn’t ask for much more at this point.”

The Knight First Amendment Institute followed up, saying they hope other public officials found blocking critics from social platforms “take Ocasio-Cortez’s lead.” 

It’s interesting to watch new precedents emerge in real-time. With elected officials on either side of the aisle frequenting social platforms to connect with their constituents, this certainly won’t be the last case of its kind.


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