New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is being sued by two people who say they were blocked from her Twitter account, which has more than 4.7 million followers, after they criticized her.
The two federal lawsuits were filed Tuesday, the same day a three-judge panel on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York upheld a lower court ruling that President Trump violated the Constitution by blocking people from his Twitter account for criticizing or mocking him. The three-judge panel ruled unanimously that “because Mr. Trump uses Twitter to conduct government business, he cannot exclude some Americans from reading his post—and engaging in conversations in the replies to them—because he does not like their views”.
This ruling is now being cited in the two lawsuits against Ocasio-Cortez. One of the lawsuits was filed by Dov Hikind, a former New York state assemblyman and founder of the group Americans Against Anti-Semitism. Hikind, a vocal Trump supporter, says Ocasio-Cortez blocked him after he criticized her for comparing migrant holding facilities at the U.S. southern border to concentration camps. Hikind’s suit alleges that he was blocked “purely because of his speech in support of Jewish values and Israel”.
The second suit comes from Joseph Saladino, a YouTube personality better known as Joey Salads, who also happens to be running for congress. Saladino, known for his racist “prank” videos, announced his lawsuit on Twitter, saying, “Trump is not allowed to block people, will the standards apply equally? Stay tuned to find out!” Saladino claims that he doesn’t care if Ocasio-Cortez blocks him, as he can still view her tweets by using a different account, but he says that she is violating his right to free speech by excluding him from the conversation and preventing him from engaging in discussions.
There is certainly a good point being made in these lawsuits. The judges that ruled Trump’s Twitter blockings as unconstitutional declared the “interactive space” surrounding Trump’s tweets to be a “designated public forum” and ruled that blocking people from that space is a violation of a person’s First Amendment rights. It’s not about seeing the tweets, it’s about the discussions and debates happening around the tweets, in the replies. Both Hikind and Saladino are claiming that by being blocked by Ocasio-Cortez, they are being excluded from the public forum and are therefore having their First Amendment rights violated.
However, there are a lot of issues that need to be resolved regarding this case. Ocasio-Cortez’s lawsuit and Trump’s lawsuit are not identical cases. Saladino and Hikind were blocked from Ocasio-Cortez’s @AOC account, not her official government account, @RepAOC, which one could argue is the account that would be considered a public forum. Conversely, one could argue the president’s @realDonaldTrump account is a personal account and should not be considered a public forum. The problem with that argument is that Trump and the White House have stated that the @realDonaldTrump account is an official outlet for policy. Ocasio-Cortez has made no such claim about her @AOC account. There is also the issue of constituency. The president’s constituents include all Americans, while Ocasio-Cortez’s constituency is the 14th District of New York, which includes portions of north-central Queens and the eastern part of the Bronx.
These two lawsuits give the impression of petty retaliation. The lawsuits seem more concerned with holding liberals to the same perceived standards as conservatives than it does with upholding the First Amendment. The lawsuits make it seem that if the ruling doesn’t go the same way as it did for Trump, then it becomes an issue of liberal bias or shadowbanning or another nonsense buzzword thrown around by conservatives online. “At the end of the day, it’s like a social experiment to see if the standards will apply equally,” Saladino told The New York Times, “Will the courts rule the same way against A.O.C. as Trump?”
Whether the courts rule that Ocasio-Cortez needs to be available to all Americans or is only barred from blocking people in her constituency, these two lawsuits have raised interesting questions that need answering. As our elected representatives become “more online”, precedents will be set that will shape the way we engage with our representatives and the way we get involved with discussion and debate with other people.
(Image: Susan Walsh/AP)