Trump is wrong to block media and voters from social media
At first glance it may not seem so important that the Toronto Star’s Washington correspondent, Daniel Dale, has been blocked from reading Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.
But take a closer look. There are significant issues at stake, including freedom of speech, a free press and their contribution to a strong democracy.
As Dale notes, having access to Trump’s tweets is essential to covering U.S. politics. “The White House itself,” he says, “has acknowledged that they are policy statements.”
Indeed, blocking Dale from seeing the president’s tweets is akin to barring a journalist from a news conference.
Trump’s tweets are not just bombast. Like other politicians he has turned social media into a public forum, similar to the town hall meetings of old. In fact, for the president they are the most important public forum. He himself has acknowledged that social media is his way of bypassing a largely hostile news media to directly reach his 40 million Twitters followers and the 24 million who follow him on Facebook.
It’s not just a free press that’s being threatened. The public’s democratic rights are in danger, too, since Trump is also blocking citizens whose criticism he dislikes. That’s akin to blocking constituents from public meetings, or even stopping someone from reading about political positions and policies simply because of their opinions.
The situation is such a threat to democracy, in fact, that seven of the president’s blocked Twitter users launched a lawsuit in July claiming that Trump is violating their First Amendment rights by excluding them from a public forum. The case is considered so pivotal that it is being spearheaded by Columbia University’s prestigious Knight First Amendment Institute.
Katie Fallow, senior staff attorney with the institute, argues that the stakes are high. “The First Amendment is in danger,” she says, “when an expressive forum is transformed into `an echo chamber of â€¦ homogenous thought’ or `a shelter for fragile egos.”’
Disturbingly, the president is not alone. Other politicians in Canada and the U.S. have taken to blocking constituents from commenting on their social media platforms. By doing so they, too, are stifling public criticism of their actions.
Fortunately, they may not get away with it for much longer in either country.
In July a Virginia district court judge ruled that a local politician had committed “a cardinal sin under the First Amendment” by blocking a constituent from her Facebook page after he made critical comments.
The politician argued her Facebook page was personal. But in a ruling that may be cited in the Trump case, the judge said she was using it as a public official by soliciting comments from voters. By blocking the constituent, he ruled, she was suppressing critical commentary regarding elected officials.
And in this country, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association announced in August it is looking into complaints from citizens who have been blocked on social media platforms by politicians and government agencies. Some have even had their comments deleted from the public feeds.
Shelley Comer of New Westminster, B.C., for example, said she has been blocked from reading or commenting on Twitter feeds of several Conservative MPs, including Erin O’Toole, Candice Bergen, Mark Strahl, Lisa Raitt and Michelle Rempel. Ontario’s former environment minister, Glen Murray, even blocked Progressive Conservative MPP Michael Harris.
No one is suggesting that hateful or harassing messages shouldn’t be blocked. But in a democracy all citizens, including the news media, have the right to criticize elected officials. No politician should be allowed to exclude citizens from the public square of the 21st century just because he finds criticism inconvenient or annoying.