To Sixth Circuit: Government Officials Should Not Have Free Rein to Block Critics on Their Social Media Accounts When Used For Governmental Purposes


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Legal intern Danya Hajjaji was the lead author of this post.

The Sixth Circuit must carefully apply a new “state action” test from the U.S. Supreme Court to ensure that public officials who use social media to speak for the government do not have free rein to infringe critics’ First Amendment rights, EFF and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University said in an amicus brief.

The Sixth Circuit is set to re-decide Lindke v. Freed, a case that was recently remanded from the Supreme Court. The lawsuit arose after Port Huron, Michigan resident Kevin Lindke left critical comments on City Manager James Freed’s Facebook page. Freed retaliated by blocking Lindke from being able to view, much less continue to leave critical comments on, Freed’s public profile. The dispute turned on the nature of Freed’s Facebook account, where updates on his government engagements were interwoven with personal posts.

Public officials who use social media as an extension of their office engage in “state action,” which refers to acting on the government’s behalf. They are bound by the First Amendment and generally cannot engage in censorship, especially viewpoint discrimination, by deleting comments or blocking citizens who criticize them. While social media platforms are private corporate entities, government officials who operate interactive online forums to engage in public discussions and share information are bound by the First Amendment.

The Sixth Circuit initially ruled in Freed’s favor, holding that no state action exists due to the prevalence of personal posts on his Facebook page and the lack of government resources, such as staff members or taxpayer dollars, used to operate it.  

The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where EFF and the Knight Institute filed a brief urging the Court to establish a functional test that finds state action when a government off

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