Trump is wrong to block me­dia and vot­ers from so­cial me­dia

The News (New Glasgow) - - OPINION -

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 … 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.

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