Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump

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Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump
CourtUnited States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
Full case nameKnight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University; Rebecca Buckwalter; Philip Cohen; Holly Figueroa; Eugene Gu; Brandon Neely; Joseph Papp; and Nicholas Pappas, Plaintiffs, v. Donald J. Trump, President of the United States; Sean M. Spicer, White House Press Secretary; and Daniel Scavino, White House Director of Social Media and Assistant to the President, Defendants.
ArguedMarch 6, 2019
DecidedJuly 9, 2019
Citation(s)928 F.3d 226
Case history
Appealed toTrump v. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University
A social media account used by an American political leader is a public forum.
Court membership
Judge(s) sittingBarrington D. Parker, Peter W. Hall, Christopher F. Droney
Case opinions
MajorityParker, joined by a unanimous court
Laws applied
First Amendment to the United States Constitution

Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump, 928 F.3d 226 (2nd Cir. 2019), is a case at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on the use of social media as a public forum. The plaintiffs, Philip N. Cohen, Eugene Gu, Holly Figueroa O'Reilly, Nicholas Pappas, Joseph M. Papp, Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, and Brandon Neely, are a group of Twitter users blocked by U.S. President Donald Trump's personal @realDonaldTrump account.[1] They alleged that Twitter constitutes a public forum, and that a government official blocking access to that forum is a violation of the First Amendment. The lawsuit also named as defendants White House press secretary Sean Spicer and social media director Dan Scavino.[2][3][4][5][6]

The plaintiffs were represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which itself was a plaintiff in the case.[2][3][4] Though the Knight Institute's Twitter account had not been blocked by Trump,[7] the lawsuit argued that they and other followers of the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account "are now deprived of their right to read the speech of the dissenters who have been blocked".[8] The complaint also argued that posts to the @realDonaldTrump account are "official statements".[9]


On Twitter, blocked users cannot see or respond to tweets from the account that blocked them. As of July 2017, the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account had 33.7 million followers.[10][11] Trump's tweets were often retweeted tens of thousands of times, and Trump frequently used Twitter to make policy statements, prior to being suspended from Twitter,[12] losing the 2020 election, and leaving the White House.[13] In June 2017, Spicer stated that Trump's tweets are considered "official statements by the president of the United States". In July 2017, Trump tweeted that his use of social media is "MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL".[10][11] Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington had filed a similar lawsuit in the District of Columbia, alleging violations of the Presidential Records Act for deleting tweets.[14]

A month prior to filing this lawsuit, the Knight Institute had sent a letter to Trump on behalf of two of the blocked Twitter users, asking that they and other blocked users have their accounts unblocked by Trump. The letter argued that Trump's personal Twitter account is a public forum, and that it is therefore unconstitutional to exclude dissenting views. The letter was copied to Spicer, Scavino, and White House counsel Don McGahn.[3][15] The Trump administration did not respond to the letter.[16]

Lower court ruling[edit]

Oral arguments were heard before Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald on March 9, 2018.[17] On May 23, 2018, Buchwald granted in part and denied in part the plaintiff's motion for an injunction against Trump's blocking of Twitter accounts, ruling that such actions are unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. The court ruled that the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account is "a presidential account as opposed to a personal account", and blocking people from it violates their rights to participate in a "designated public forum".[18] Buchwald introduced the decision by writing:

This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, “block” a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed, and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States. The answer to both questions is no.[19]

After this ruling, the seven Twitter users that were a part of the lawsuit were unblocked by the managers of Trump's account.[20] In August 2018, the government filed an appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.[21] Also in August, the Knight First Amendment Institute sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department requesting that the President comply with the Judge's ruling and unblock a list of 41 additional Twitter users, including Danny Zuker, MoveOn activist Jordan Uhl, health care activist Laura Packard, and journalists like Alex Kotch and Jules Suzdaltsev.[22] Those users were then unblocked by @realDonaldTrump.[23] Regardless, the Trump Administration appealed the ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming that the district court had subjected him to unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination in violation of his own free speech rights.[21]

Circuit court ruling and subsequent developments[edit]

The Second Circuit issued its decision in July 2019, upholding the district court ruling.[24][25] The Second Circuit determined that Trump used his Twitter account to conduct official government business, and therefore, he cannot block Americans from the account on the basis of their political views.[26][27] The government was denied an en banc review by the full Second Circuit in March 2020.[28]

On the day of the Second Circuit's decision, former New York state representative Dov Hikind and candidate Joey Salads separately sued U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez within New York state federal district court for blocking them from her Twitter account, based on the ruling from the Second Circuit.[29][30] In July 2020, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sued Donald Trump again, on behalf of users who were blocked before Trump's inauguration, or who were not able to identify which tweet prompted Trump to block them.[31]

Trump petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in August 2020 to hear his appeal of the Second Circuit ruling. Trump's petition requested the Supreme Court to answer the question of "Whether the First Amendment deprives a government official of his right to control his personal Twitter account by blocking third-party accounts if he uses that personal account in part to announce official actions and policies."[32] Following the 2020 election, in which Joe Biden was elected president, Biden became the petitioning party for this case (now known as Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute) and other pending Supreme Court cases, replacing Trump in his role as president.[33] On January 19, 2021, the Justice Department filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to vacate the Second Circuit ruling on the grounds that Trump was soon leaving office and thus the case no longer concerned his account in its official capacity, thus rendering the case moot.[34] The Knight Institute responded by arguing that the Second Circuit ruling should remain, claiming "The case is moot because President Trump's repeated violation of Twitter's terms of service led that company to shut down his account and to ban him permanently from its platform. Because it was President Trump's own voluntary actions that made the case moot, the Supreme Court should leave the appeals court's ruling in place."[35]

The Supreme Court subsequently vacated the decision and remanded the case to the Second Circuit as to render the case moot on April 5, 2021.[36][37] Justice Clarence Thomas issued a 12-page concurring opinion, but argued that Twitter and similar companies could face some First Amendment restrictions even though they are not government agencies. Thomas suggested that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act had perhaps been construed too broadly, and that Twitter, Facebook, et al., should be regulated as common carriers.[38]

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to two similar cases in the 2023–24 term; O'Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier and Lindke v. Freed. Both cases involve whether the personal accounts of state actors that have been used for government business can block members of the public from accessing these accounts.[39] The unanimous ruling in Lindke, held as per curiam in O'Connor-Ratcliffe, found that speech on personal accounts of public officials may be deemed state speech if the official has control of the social media account, and the content of the speech is related to their state activities, and thus may not block others or delete messages critical of that speech. Speech outside these bounds otherwise is considered within the private activities of the official and may be controlled.[40]


In response to critics who question whether Twitter should be considered a public forum, Knight Institute senior attorney Katie Fallow cited a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Packingham v. North Carolina, in which Justice Anthony Kennedy described social media as "the modern public square" and as one of the most important places for the exchange of views. That ruling, which was unanimous, struck down a North Carolina law that prohibited registered sex offenders from accessing social media sites.[2] The Knight ruling has been cited as an important development in the use of social media as a public forum, and the tendency of government officials to try to block access to that forum or delete past communications.[41] The case was cited by a rapporteur public (advocate general) of a French appellate court[42] when deciding a similar case,[43] involving the French Immigration Office (OFII) blocking a Twitter user who had made negative comments about the office.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hutchinson, Bill (May 24, 2018). "Here are the 7 tweets that led to landmark court decision against Trump". ABC News.
  2. ^ a b c Wong, Julia Carrie (July 11, 2017). "Twitter users sue Donald Trump for blocking them over critical comments". The Guardian. Retrieved July 11, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c Savage, Charlie (July 11, 2017). "Twitter Users Blocked by Trump File Lawsuit". The New York Times. Archived from the original on July 12, 2017. Retrieved August 12, 2018.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  4. ^ a b Neumeister, Larry (July 11, 2017). "Trump sued for blocking some of his critics on Twitter". The Washington Post. Associated Press. Archived from the original on July 11, 2017. Retrieved July 11, 2017.
  5. ^ Knight First Amendment Institute (July 11, 2017). "Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief". Retrieved October 25, 2018.
  6. ^ Brannon, Valerie C. (June 5, 2018). UPDATE: Sidewalks, Streets, and Tweets: Is Twitter a Public Forum? (PDF). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. Retrieved June 14, 2018.
  7. ^ Abramson, Alana (July 11, 2017). "Donald Trump Blocked These People on Twitter. Now They're Suing Him". Time. Retrieved July 11, 2017.
  8. ^ Sumagaysay, Levi (July 11, 2017). "Trump sued by people he blocked on Twitter". The Mercury News. Retrieved July 11, 2017.
  9. ^ Heilweil, Rebecca (July 11, 2017). "Trump Violates First Amendment With Every Twitter User He Blocks, Lawsuit Contends". Forbes. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  10. ^ a b Blunden, Mark (July 12, 2017). "Donald Trump sued for blocking people on Twitter". Evening Standard. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  11. ^ a b Pestano, Andrew V. (July 12, 2017). "Advocates sue Trump for blocking Twitter users". UPI. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  12. ^ "Permanent suspension of @realDonaldTrump". Retrieved January 21, 2021.
  13. ^ Volz, Dustin (July 11, 2017). "U.S. free-speech group sues Trump for blocking Twitter users". Reuters. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  14. ^ Citizens for Responsibility v. Trump, 924 F.3d 602 (D.C. Cir., 2019).
  15. ^ Savage, Charlie (June 6, 2017). "Twitter Users Blocked by Trump Seek Reprieve, Citing First Amendment". The New York Times. Archived from the original on June 6, 2017. Retrieved August 12, 2018.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  16. ^ Kastrenakes, Jacob (May 20, 2020). "Here are all the winners of the 2020 Webby Awards". The Verge. Retrieved May 22, 2020.
  17. ^ Allsop, Jon (March 9, 2018). "In downtown New York, a First Amendment fight over Trump's tweets". Columbia Journalism Review. Archived from the original on March 9, 2018. Retrieved August 12, 2018.
  18. ^ Wolfson, Sam (May 23, 2018). "Donald Trump cannot block anyone on Twitter, court rules". The Guardian. Retrieved May 24, 2018.
  19. ^ Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Trump, No. 1:17-cv-05205 (S.D.N.Y. May 23, 2018).
  20. ^ Kan, Michael (June 6, 2018). "Trump Unblocks Some Critics on Twitter, But Will Fight Ruling". PCMag Australia.
  21. ^ a b "Government appeal" (PDF). August 3, 2018. Retrieved September 30, 2019.
  22. ^ Binder, Matt (August 29, 2018). "President Trump forced to unblock dozens of Twitter users after court ruling". Mashable.
  23. ^ Shepardson, David (August 28, 2018). "Trump unblocks more Twitter users after U.S. court ruling". Reuters.
  24. ^ Appeal decision
  25. ^ Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump, 928 F. 3d 226 (2nd Cir., 2019).
  26. ^ Savage, Charlie (July 9, 2019). "Trump Can't Block Critics From His Twitter Account, Appeals Court Rules". The New York Times. Retrieved July 9, 2019.
  27. ^ "Trump violated US constitution by blocking critics on Twitter, federal court rules". The Guardian. July 9, 2019. Retrieved July 9, 2019.
  28. ^ Spangler, Todd (March 23, 2020). "Donald Trump Violated First Amendment by Blocking Critics on Twitter, Appeals Court Affirms". Variety. Retrieved March 23, 2020.
  29. ^ Bowden, John (July 10, 2019). "Ocasio-Cortez sued over Twitter blocks". The Hill. Retrieved July 10, 2019.
  30. ^ Ingber, Sasha (July 12, 2019). "Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Sued Over Blocking Twitter Followers". NPR. Retrieved July 12, 2019.
  31. ^ Choi, Matthew (July 31, 2020). "Trump sued again for blocking people on Twitter". Politico.
  32. ^ Velazco, Chris (August 20, 2020). "White House calls on Supreme Court to rule on Trump's Twitter blocking". Engadget. Retrieved August 20, 2020.
  33. ^ Wolf, Richard (November 8, 2020). "President Trump's defeat may give Supreme Court a rest from personal, policy lawsuits". USA Today.
  34. ^ "Government's Supplemental Brief (asking the Supreme Court to vacate 2d Cir. decision)" (PDF). January 19, 2021.
  35. ^ "Justice Department Abandons Request that Supreme Court Hear Case Relating to Trump's Now-Defunct Twitter Account". January 21, 2021.
  36. ^ Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute, 141 S.Ct. 1220 (U.S. Supreme Court, 2021).
  37. ^ [bare URL PDF]
  38. ^ Brodkin, Jon (April 5, 2021). "Clarence Thomas blasts Section 230, wants "common-carrier" rules on Twitter". Ars Technica. Retrieved November 11, 2022.
  39. ^ Fritze, John (October 30, 2023). "Can a city official 'cancel' a constituent? How a fight over an emoji wound up at the Supreme Court". USA Today. Retrieved October 30, 2023.
  40. ^ Sherman, Mark (March 15, 2024). "SCOTUS Rules Public Officials Can Sometimes Be Sued For Blocking Critics On Social Media". Associated Press. Retrieved March 15, 2024 – via Huffington Post.
  41. ^ Terry, Christopher; Schmitz, Stephen; Silberberg, Eliezer Joseph (2022). "A Cheerleader, a Snapchat, and a Profanity Go to Supreme Court but the Punchline in Mahanoy Isn't Funny". Communications Law & Policy. 27 (2): 79–101. doi:10.1080/10811680.2022.2055377. S2CID 249326630.
  42. ^ CHARVIN, Baptiste (July–August 2023). "Services publics et liberté d'expression sur les réseaux sociaux : Du droit américain au droit français". Revue française de droit administratif. 39 (4): 719 – via Dalloz Revues.
  43. ^ CAA Paris, 27 mars 2023, 21PA00815
  44. ^ Landot, Éric (March 28, 2023). "Le blocage d'un " follower " d'un réseau social en ligne d'une personne publique… s'avère, selon la CAA de Paris, fort contraint". (in French). Retrieved September 20, 2023.