The US Supreme Court Monday agreed to hear two cases concerning public officials’ First Amendment rights on social media platforms under the US Constitution.
In the first case, Lindke v. Freed, the court will consider whether a public official’s social media activity constitutes state action if the public official only used the social media for the purpose of their office or position.
The second case, O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier, asks the court whether a public official’s decision to block an individual from the official’s social media account is subject to the First Amendment if the account is used to communicate official matters and the decision is not done under the direction of any governmental authority.
At the heart of both cases is a concept known as state action. Both lawsuits are brought against government officials, alleging that their actions violated the First Amendment’s right to free speech. In order for the First Amendment to apply, however, the individuals bringing suit must show that the government somehow abridged their right to free speech. The First Amendment cannot be applied against purely private parties. This is where the idea of state action enters the picture.
Essentially, what the two lawsuits ask the court to determine is whether the officials’ actions on their social media pages constituted a state action—one carried out by a government official in the course of their duties. If it did, then the government officials may have violated the First Amendment. If the court finds that the government officials did not take the actions within the course of their official duties—meaning it was not state action—then there can be no finding of a First Amendment violation.
The first of the two cases, Lindke arises out of the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The court held that Freed, a city manager in Michigan, did not violate city resident Lindke’s First Amendment rights when he blocked Lindke from his Facebook page. Lindke had taken to Freed’s Facebook page to criticize Freed’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lindke argued the blocking constituted state action, since Freed blocked Lindke from his city manager Facebook page, and therefore violated his First Amendment rights. The court disagreed with Lindke, finding in favor of Freed.
The court’s finding in Lindke directly conflicted with the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s finding in O’Connor-Ratcliff. In O’Connor-Ratcliff, the court found that two southern California school board members violated two parents’ First Amendment rights by blocking them from their personal Facebook and Twitter pages.
O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane, the two school board members, blocked the parents after they repeatedly posted “repetitious and non-responsive comments and replies” to O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane’s personal Facebook and Twitter accounts. Both O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane used their personal accounts to communicate official information related to their positions on the school board. O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane disagreed with the court’s finding and asked the Supreme Court to reconsider whether their actions constituted state action.
The court has not yet announced when they will hear oral arguments for the cases. The court has nearly reached the end of their spring term, with their final oral argument for the term scheduled for Wednesday, April 26.