For most of his presidency, Donald Trump has used campaign rallies and Twitter as his primary means of communicating with the public. Attendance at his speeches might be waning on its own, but his audience on Twitter has received a lot of deliberate pruning by the president himself — or whoever runs his typo-riddled account when he’s off eating fast food, watching Fox News or pretending to be a statesman.
But does a Twitter-based president have the right to silence critics by blocking them from seeing his account? This unlikely question has long shadowed this president, whom controversy follows wherever he goes. We now have a definitive answer.
Trump has blocked enough people on Twitter since being elected that this issue is now a national — and First Amendment — issue. He just got a much-needed reality-check from a United States District Judge named Naomi Reice Buchwald. The judge ruled Trump cannot legally block his tweets from public view, as Twitter is a “designated public forum.”
Judge Buchwald didn’t seem to have much trouble reaching this conclusion, despite the unusual circumstances. Over the last couple of years, the worlds of public political speech and jurisprudence have had to think pretty hard about the positive and negative effects of social media on politics.
Used correctly, these technologies could enhance our correspondence and discourse in a very real way. So far, though, it hasn’t played out that way. Social media today is a series of filter bubbles — and Donald Trump has actively helped that trend along to its logical conclusion.
But even if the particulars of this conversation are new, the conclusions being drawn are anything but novel.
Remember when Mark Zuckerberg skated through Congressional and Parliament hearings by giving non-answers and pretending to be an Android? That was an attempt by civilized society to bring accountability to a communication platform that has become — like it or not — central to our civic and personal lives.
Not a lot of productive conversations happen on Facebook, but it’s still definitely a hotbed for political thought, opinion and, yes, active misinformation campaigns. If Facebook wishes to continue profiting from the digital footprint of world citizens, then, the logic goes, it should at least pretend it cares about transparency — including disclosing who’s buying political ads and whether the substance of those ads has any basis in reality.
A similar moment of reckoning is here for Twitter and any other upstart that wants to play civic arbiter. Donald Trump is a cruel little cretin, but it’s hard not to admit that his willingness to use Twitter to cut through some of the noise and speak directly to “the people” is unique among presidents we’ve had. One of the biggest problems with how he’s going about it, though, is that he thinks “the people” should only be those who share his “beliefs.”
Before Judge Buchwald’s ruling, other judges had already recognized that the president’s tweets are “official public policy statements” and must be taken seriously, and protected, as such. It sounds a little surreal, but this could snowball into our turning the internet into the global town hall it was always supposed to be. All it took was a small man with a big mouth, a strongman with thin skin.
In other words, the physical or digital communication medium doesn’t matter these days. Television? Print ads? Social media? Public statements of any kind made by civil servants for any purpose are necessarily protected speech. And our right to view them is protected now, as well.
We knew this was the case even before Buchwald stepped in. Donald Trump has a right to run his mouth on Twitter, and the public has the right not to be kept in the dark about it — including folks he doesn’t agree with, doesn’t like or otherwise arbitrarily blocks from viewing his account.
During his campaign, his inauguration and on a regular basis since his swearing-in, Trump claimed regularly and loudly that he’s a champion of the people. He didn’t say “some of the people.” He didn’t say “people who agree with me.” He said, roughly, this: “This will be remembered as the day the American people became rulers of their destinies once again.”
Oh, really? If Trump is serious about being a unifying figure, then he’s off to a hilariously bad start if he can’t handle a few dissenting opinions.
Our snowflake-in-chief opened this door in the first place by turning Twitter into a bullhorn for every matter that flickers across his mind during the day. Now he’s trying to close that door to those who disagree with him?
No — we’re not having it. If you want to act like an ignorant neckbeard on Twitter at all hours of the day, you’d better learn to handle your critics more gracefully.
We should be proud of Judge Buchwald for slapping Trump with a sharp rebuke here. His administration is jamming U.S. courts full of conservative extremists as we speak, so it’s good to see he’s getting some comeuppance from a judge who still has some integrity. Politics aside, it’s the schadenfreude that makes this story a little bit cathartic for the rest of us.
Trump doesn’t seem to block people on Twitter because he cares about the politics involved. He blocks them for the same reason he stoops to ruminating over the size of his hands or his inauguration crowd: because, underneath the bluster, he seems to get genuinely shaken when people don’t agree with him.
This is the man who spent years sending photographs of his hands to people who teased him. He lies all day long not because he has a cohesive agenda worth defending, but for the same reason a child lies when he’s been caught sweeping up the broken pieces of his mother’s favorite lamp.
So, his story goes — the mess isn’t his fault because he’s a raging jackass; it’s our fault because some of us were brave enough to call him out for it.