SCOTUS Drops Ruling Against Government’s Abuse Of American Citizens

OPINION:  This article contains commentary which may reflect the author’s opinion

The U.S. Supreme Court’s justices have rendered a decision in the significant First Amendment case of Lindke v. Freed.

According to ABC News, the question in this case was whether blocking people on social media by public officials violates the US Constitution.

There was a unanimous ruling from the justices.

They did not, however, provide a definitive “yes” or “no” decision.

On Friday, the Supreme Court established a new standard for distinguishing between official and private behavior when it comes to acts performed by government personnel on social media, such as publishing messages, removing comments, or barring people.

As millions of employees of local, state, and federal governments use social media to interact with the public, the distinction has become increasingly important. These employees frequently utilize “mixed use” accounts that also contain solely private, non-official information.

“When a government official posts about job-related topics on social media, it can be difficult to tell whether the speech is official or private,” wrote Justice Amy Coney Barrett in a unanimous opinion in the case Lindke v. Freed. “We hold that such speech is attributable to the state only if the official (1) possessed actual authority to speak on the state’s behalf, and (2) purported to exercise that authority when he spoke on social media.”

Barrett summarized the difference by saying that it depends on “substance, not labels.”

Government personnel are typically prohibited from limiting public comments or preventing access to a social media account that provides official communications by the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech.

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Government workers, like private persons, are nevertheless entitled to the First Amendment, which includes the freedom to create, update, and control their own social media pages.

“Private parties can act with the authority of the state, and state officials have private lives and their own constitutional rights,” Barrett wrote. “Categorizing conduct, therefore, can require a close look.”

The court declared a new test in a case involving Kevin Lindke, a man from Michigan, who sued James Freed, the manager of Port Huron, after Lindke’s Facebook remarks were removed and he was denied access to the page.

Lindke had expressed disapproval of Freed’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Freed argued that postings on COVID were unrelated to his job responsibilities and that the Facebook account was personal. The First Amendment, according to both men, is on his side.

After the ruling on Friday, the case is remanded to a federal appeals court for more consideration.

“I am very pleased with the outcome the justices came to,” Freed told ABC News in a statement. “The Court rejected the plaintiff’s appearance test and further refined a test for review by the Sixth Circuit [U.S. Court of Appeals]. We are extremely confident we will prevail there once more.”

Lindke told ABC News he is also “ecstatic.”

“A 9-0 decision is very decisive and is a clear indicator that public officials cannot hide behind personal social media accounts when discussing official business,” he said.

A rising number of incidents in recent years have involved public authorities purportedly suppressing or silencing their adversaries on the internet.

A 2017 lawsuit filed by a group of Twitter users who were blocked by Donald Trump for opposing his presidency was one of the more well-known instances. The Supreme Court heard the case, but dismissed it since Trump had resigned.

The California case O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier, in which a group of parents sued two school board members for allegedly stifling their criticism on social media, was also discussed by the justices on Friday. The court sent the case back to a lower court for additional review in light of the new standard in an unsigned per curiam judgment.

Barrett’s ruling in the Lindke case provides subordinate courts with improved standards for settling conflicts on social media going forward.

“A defendant like Freed must have actual authority rooted in written law or longstanding custom to speak for the state. That authority must extend to speech of the sort that caused the alleged rights deprivation,” Barrett wrote. “If the plaintiff cannot make this threshold showing of authority, he cannot establish state action.”


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