Trump threatened with legal action after blocking critical Twitter users

First Amendment advocates have threatened legal action unless users are unbarred from communicating with Trump's Twitter handle.

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CNET

US President Trump doesn't need to open his mouth to cause everything from amusement to outrage. Instead, his Twitter handle, @realDonaldTrump, does all the work for him.

The president's staff may wake up in the morning and groan at the latest circus caused by the unorthodox leader's social media commentary, such as a diplomatic firestorm around Middle East conflicts or inexplicable declarations such as the "covfefe" term which spread like wildfire to cause hilarity for the masses -- but while Trump maintains an iron grip on his right to tweet publicly, others argue he is ignoring the rights of others to respond.

Columbia University's Knight First Amendment Institute has sent a public letter to Trump, demanding that the president immediately unblock the Twitter accounts of those barred by the president for reasons such as criticizing him, mocking him, or disagreeing with his views.

The scholars argue that as Trump chooses to use his Twitter account to such effect, it is a "designated public forum" which must be subject to the First Amendment, which guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition.

If an American president chooses to ignore and effectively bar individuals from expressing their views on social media, then it could be argued that this action is violating their First Amendment rights on a public forum, somewhat hypocritically after Trump fought for his own right to tweet.

See also: Trump's cybersecurity executive order met with mixed reviews

The Knight Institute says that the president should unblock these accounts on both his main account and @POTUS, "or face legal action to protect the First Amendment rights of the blocked individuals."

"This is a context in which the Constitution precludes the president from making up his own rules," said Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute's executive director. "Though the architects of the Constitution surely didn't contemplate presidential Twitter accounts, they understood that the president must not be allowed to banish views from public discourse simply because he finds them objectionable."

"Having opened this forum to all comers, the president can't exclude people from it merely because he dislikes what they're saying," Jaffer added.

Among those blocked by Trump, as noted in the Knight Institute's letter, are @AynRandPaulRyan who was blocked after tweeting an animation of the Pope looking uncomfortable next to the president, as well as @joepabike, who was blocked after calling Trump a "fake leader."

The Institute argues that with so many US officials using the platform -- including all 50 governors, 100 senators, and every House member -- if used for communication relating to democracy or running the country, Twitter should be considered a valid public forum in which the general public's rights are protected.

Katie Fallow, a senior litigator at the institution, argues that just as "the First Amendment disallows mayors from ejecting critics from town halls, it should disallow the president from blocking critics on Twitter."

Last week, Trump faced a storm of criticism and walk-outs from his advisory councils over withdrawing the US from the climate change Paris agreement. Co-founder of Tesla and entrepreneur Elon Musk was among those to leave.

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