From Town Square to Twittersphere: The Public Forum Doctrine Goes Digital
76 Pages Posted: 14 Sep 2018
Date Written: September 14, 2018
Government officials like President Donald J. Trump and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan are increasingly using popular social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to connect and interact with their constituents and to solicit public comment on matters of public importance – whether on officially-designated government platforms (like https://www.facebook.com/GovLarryHogan/) or on unofficial platforms used for the same purposes. In recent years, government officials have increasingly turned to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook in place of (and in addition to) actual town halls and other real-space forums to solicit public participation in policy formulation and to engage with their constituents. When such interactions between government officials and their constituents occur in real space like town halls, they fall comfortably within the scope of the First Amendment's public forum doctrine, which provides strong protections for freedom of speech and assembly, and prohibits government officials from discriminating against or silencing speakers based on their viewpoint. However, when such interactions take place in cyberspace -- on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook -- the application of the First Amendment's public forum is somewhat less clear. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are privately owned, which raises issues for the application of the First Amendment’s public forum doctrine. The public forum doctrine (which provides the greatest protection for free speech in general, as well as against content and viewpoint discrimination) traditionally applies to government-owned or government-controlled -- not privately-owned -- property. The private ownership of social media sites also raises issues for the application of the First Amendment's state action doctrine, which provides that the restriction of speech by and through private actors does not implicate the First Amendment except in narrow, limited circumstances.
This Article examines whether and to what extent government officials' use of social media sites to interact with their constituents constitutes a public forum and what this forum analysis means for the ability of government officials to block or censor constituents on their social media sites. Such issues have recently arisen in the context of President Donald Trump’s blocking of constituents with whom he disagrees on his @realDonaldTrump/Twitter account. Similar issues have arisen in the context of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s and Virginia County Commissioner Phyllis Randall's blocking of constituents on their Facebook pages, in response to being asked challenging questions. The recent Supreme Court case of Packingham v. North Carolina sheds some light on the application of the public forum doctrine to social media sites and the use and misuse of such sites by government officials. In particular, Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court in Packingham extends his functional, expansive conception of the public forum doctrine to non-traditional forums that function as forums for public discourse. In Part I of this Article, I examine in detail the circumstances surrounding recent incidents in which government officials have blocked constituents from following them on Twitter and from commenting on their Facebook pages. Part II undertakes an analysis of the historical development of the public forum doctrine, its recent development in the digital age, as well as the government speech doctrine and the contrast between public forums and government speech. In Part III, I apply the forum analysis developed in Part II to the recent incidents of government officials' blocking constituents from accessing their social media sites, with an in-depth analysis of the Trump/Twitter lawsuit in particular, and conclude that such social media sites constitute public forums in which viewpoint discrimination is illegal. Part IV provides suggestions to government officials for developing policies governing social media accounts that comply with the dictates of the First Amendment, and a brief conclusion follows.
Keywords: public forum, Internet, free speech, First Amendment, blocking, censorship, Twitter, Facebook, Trump, Packingham
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