Free Speech Legal Center Threatens To Sue Trump For Blocking Twitter Users

Jun 7, 2017
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President Trump tweets so often on sensitive matters that his use of the social media platform has become an issue - not only his tweets but also his other actions. Trump has been blocking some people on Twitter. A free speech legal center argues that Trump cannot legally do that. It might seem frivolous, but as NPR's David Folkenflik, reports it is sharpening the debate over those presidential tweets.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Trump today revealed his pick to be the new FBI director. He did it from his personal Twitter account with the handle @RealDonaldTrump about five hours before a White House press release. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about Trump's reliance on Twitter yesterday.

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SEAN SPICER: Well, the president is the president of the United States, so they're considered official statements by the president of the United States.

FOLKENFLIK: Trump has tweeted rhetorical fire against the mayor of London after the latest terror attack there. He's also tweeted barbs at former FBI Director James Comey, whom he fired. Trump even called his proposed restrictions on travel from six Muslim majority nations a ban. Aides hustled to mitigate the damage. White House counterterrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka clashed with CNN's Chris Cuomo.

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SEBASTIAN GORKA: It's not policy.

CHRIS CUOMO: Of course it is.

GORKA: It's social media, Chris. It's social media.

CUOMO: It's not social media.

GORKA: You know the difference, right?

CUOMO: It's his words, his thoughts.

GORKA: It's not policy. It's not an executive order. It's social media. Please understand the difference.

FOLKENFLIK: Gorka betrayed contempt. Cuomo was disbelieving.

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CUOMO: The president of the United States decides multiple times to tell the entire world what he wants our travel policy to be with respect to these Muslim countries, and you're saying, ignore it because it's a tweet and not a piece of paper that says executive order on it. That's what you're saying.

GORKA: I...

FOLKENFLIK: Julie Davis is White House correspondent for The New York Times.

JULIE DAVIS: They are the statements that are the most in Trump's voice of anything we get from this White House. And in a White House where you don't often have news conferences or opportunities to talk with the president either one-on-one or in a group setting, the tweets are really important to reflect his thinking.

FOLKENFLIK: Many reporters thought candidate Trump would evolve once in office.

DAVIS: There was a legitimate belief that the president might stop tweeting now because now he's president and that you can't do that as president. And, oh, how wrong we were.

FOLKENFLIK: Trump has said - well, tweeted - that he uses Twitter to talk directly to the American public around the mainstream media. Jameel Jaffer is the executive director of the new Knight First Amendment Institute which is affiliated with Columbia University.

JAMEEL JAFFER: I don't even think it's arguable. It is the most important social media account operated by the U.S. government or a U.S. government official right now. And it is operated in order to get President Trump's opinions about government policy to Americans and to the world.

FOLKENFLIK: The institute sent a letter yesterday to White House officials to demand that Trump stop blocking people from following his Twitter accounts. Trump or his aides have blocked a number of Twitter users who have tweeted critical and caustic replies. Jaffer threatens to sue to reverse the practice, saying that critical free speech is constitutionally protected.

JAFFER: The government or a government official has opened up some space. Here it's a kind of metaphysical space rather than a physical space - but opened up some space to the public for expressive activity. You can't exclude people from this kind of forum simply because they criticized you or because they mocked you or because they disagreed with what you had to say.

FOLKENFLIK: Trump has reportedly told aides he plans to live tweet tomorrow while James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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