On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed issues regarding free speech rights in our digital era. Arguments in cases from California and Michigan involved the topic of whether or not public officials have the legal right to block others on social media—a function specifically built to stifle critics. 

The two cases concluded quite differently, leaving the subject in legal limbo. The conundrum left those involved wondering whether actions on social media and the like are truly bound to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment limits on the government’s ability to hinder speech. The arguments resounding throughout the Supreme Court were ongoing at the time.

The matter in question is whether the public officials are engaged in “state action” when they block critics on their social media accounts or if the actions fall under their personal capacity. The First Amendment grants the government agency over government actors but leaves private individuals to their own (technological) devices. 

The California case involves two public school board trustees from Poway. They appealed the lower court’s ruling, where parents sued them after being blocked from their personal accounts on X (formerly Twitter) and Facebook, both owned by Meta. 

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As for the case in Michigan, there’s a similar appeal to a lower court ruling where a man’s lawsuit was rejected. The lawsuit challenged a Port Huron city official who blocked the individual on Facebook. 

The justices asked a series of questions indicating an interest in the contextual circumstances where a social media account would be classified as personal or official. Some veered into the territory of wondering how often personal accounts are used for government business and granting access to those that qualified them to block other users at will. 

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito addressed an attorney on the defense of the Poway school board officials, stating that a town manager with a city seal on their page could potentially “block anybody who expresses criticism of what the town manager is doing, and thereby create the impression that everybody in town thinks the town manager is doing the right thing.”

In 2021, the Supreme Court addressed a similar issue, but the judgment was deemed moot, leaving an inconclusive decision. 

Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane are the elected trustees of the Powar Unified School District. They had blocked Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, parents of three district school students. They blocked the parents in response to hundreds of critical posts on the topics of race and school funds. The judge ruled in favor of the parents, and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. 

In the Michigan case, Kevin Lindke sued City Manager James Freed as a resident of Port Huron. Freed had blocked him from his public Facebook page after posting several critical posts regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The ruling was in favor of Freed, and the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made the same judgment.

There were also questions posed by the justices asking whether requiring public officials to include disclaimers on their personal pages could help to create a clear differentiation between types of social media accounts. Liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson asked, “Why should they get to choose whether or not they’re doing one or the other without, say, making a clear disclaimer or making it clear to people that this is actually happening in their personal capacity?” She also stated that she was struggling to understand “why the onus isn’t on the government official to be clear about the capacity in which they’re operating.”