Donald Trump Could Mute But Not Block Twitter Followers, Says Judge

Judge asked if Twitter is like a public town hall where government officials can't turn the microphone off when they hear something they "don't like."

Donald Trump talks at the Latino Coalition's Legislative Summit.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Judge asked if Twitter is like a public town hall where government officials can't turn the microphone off when they hear something they "don't like."

A federal judge seemed doubtful that U.S. President Donald Trump has the constitutional right to block Twitter followers who are critical of him and his presidency. Instead, the judge suggested that Trump should simply mute his detractors on the social media platform.

U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald said on Thursday during a hearing in the Manhattan federal court that, in a public forum, a person can’t prevent another person from expressing opinions opposite from what he or she believes in.

Buchwald is skeptical that Trump can “constitutionally block Twitter users whose views he does not like,” according to CNBC. It was suggested that Trump can’t prevent people from “following and retweeting from his own Twitter account” since “you can’t shut somebody up because you don’t like what they’re saying” in a public forum.

During the hearing, Buchwald asked Michael Baer, the lawyer for Trump, if he believes barring Twitter users from the president’s personal account is a violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which “guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition.”

Buchwald also asked Baer if he thinks Twitter was any different from a public town hall, a place where people are free to speak without fear of being silenced by government officials.

Baer compared the situation to Trump deciding to turn and “walk away from someone at a public event.”

“The president has an associational interest in deciding who he’s going to spend time with in that setting,” Baer said.

The judge informed both parties that it would be better if they reach a settlement regarding the case, reports Newsweek. If they fail to do so, Buchwald said this may lead to a new law, which will possibly be not favorable to them.

The settlement means Trump will no longer be allowed to block critics but he can mute them to avoid reading criticisms. In other words, the followers are still free to say what they want to say to Trump on his Twitter account but the president has the option not to see them.

A group including the Knight First Amendment Institute and seven individuals sued Trump in July last year after the president blocked them from his Twitter account @realDonaldTrump. The plaintiffs stressed that Trump’s personal account is a “public forum” and that they shouldn’t have been blocked because of their differing views.

Trump’s side, meanwhile, believes his Twitter account is not a public forum, therefore he has the right to block people. The White House, however, has signified that the messages Trump says on Twitter are “official statements.”

Katherine Fallow, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, pointed this out saying the @realDonaldTrump account is not “purely personal” since “it is overwhelmingly used for official purposes.”

While Buchwald thinks muting is the solution, some of the plaintiffs believe otherwise.

Rebecca Buckwalter, a journalist blocked by Trump, said that it is obvious the president “wants to suppress” their freedom of speech and that muting her and other critics is another way of doing so.

Another plaintiff, comic and writer Nick Pappas, approved of the judge’s suggestion.

“I never thought that Trump would be reading my tweets,” Pappas said. “It was never my point. I wanted other people to read my tweets, other citizens to read my tweets. So as long as they can read them, I would definitely be completely fine with him never hearing anything I say.”

After the hearing, Fallow addressed media saying muting is an option “that is much less restrictive and burdensome on the plaintiffs’ speech rights.”