From Town Square to Twittersphere: The Public Forum Doctrine Goes Digital

From the abstract for From Town Square to Twittersphere: The Public Forum Doctrine Goes Digital, 25 B.U. J. Sci. & Tech. L. (2019), Forthcoming, by Dawn Carla Nunziato:

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.

— Joe

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