Public Forum | Social Media | Viewpoint Discrimination

Justice Department Asks SCOTUS To Vacate Knight v. Trump Ruling

People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken September 27, 2013. (Reuters/Kacper Pempel)

By: Soraya Ferdman

On January 19th, the Justice Department made a last-minute attempt to undo a lower court’s ruling that prohibited then-President Donald Trump from blocking critics on his personal Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump.

The case, Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump, rests on the question of whether a public official can block critics on his or her personal social media accounts if he or she uses those accounts for official purposes. In the past, courts have designated that social media accounts run by public officials are limited public forums, subject to the First Amendment.

Read more about the laws governing public officials’ social media accounts

While the case is still pending in the Supreme Court, two major developments have left both sides unsure if the case will go forward. Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in the 2020 presidential election meant that Trump was no longer a government official bound by the First Amendment. Thus, any formal review of the case would no longer apply to Trump after January 20, 2021.

In their brief, the Justice Department construed Biden’s inauguration as evidence that @realDonaldTrump was never “governmental,” and Trump’s act of blocking users was never a form of state action. Because the Twitter account did not transfer to Biden, the DOJ argued that not only was the case moot, but that the Supreme Court should vacate the lower court’s decision.

“That this case will become moot upon President Biden’s inauguration underscores the fundamental flaw with the court of appeals’ decision: the blocking of the individual respondents was not an official state action that can be redressed by the Office of the President,” the brief stated.

The DoJ made no mention of the fact that, as of January 6th, not even Trump would have access to @realDonaldTrump. On January 8th, permanently banned Trump following his rhetoric that led to the attack on the Capitol.

“Petitioners are right that the case is moot, but they are wrong about why,” attorneys at the Knight Institute wrote in a response filed with the Court on January 21st. “The case is moot because President Trump’s repeated violation of Twitter’s terms of service led that company to shut down his account on January 6, 2021, and to permanently ban him from its platform on January 8, 2021.”

Furthermore, the Knight attorneys argue that the party seeking to vacate a ruling typically has to show that the circumstances that resulted in “mootness” occurred outside of that party’s control. In this case, it was the President’s “own actions” that led Twitter to suspend his account.

The Supreme Court has not yet made a decision as to whether it still plans to hear this case.