Civil liberties attorney shares details about lawsuit against Trump

Civil rights attorney Jameel Jaffer discussed the President’s Twitter and questions of civil rights in the digital age as a Poynter Fellow on Feb. 10.
Jenifer Fenton and Jameel Jaffer

Poynter Fellow and event moderator Jennifer Fenton (left) and Jameel Jaffer at the Whitney Humanities Center on Feb. 10.

Jameel Jaffer will soon have his day in court, and the judge’s decision could change the social media behavior of President Donald Trump, he told the audience at his Poynter Fellowship in Journalism talk at Whitney Humanities Center on Feb. 10.

Jaffer is the current director of the Knight Institute at Columbia University, which filed a lawsuit in September on behalf of Americans personally blocked by the U.S. President on his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account. All seven people had criticized government policy on their accounts before they were blocked.

We learned [from a legal filing] it is, in fact, the President himself who blocks critics on Twitter. Other White House officials help administer the account and help draft tweets. But the President himself is making these decisions about who to block and who not to block,” said Jaffer.

The seven plaintiffs in the case are ordinary people from across America. One is a journalist and graduate of Yale Law School, Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, who argues that by not having immediate access to the President’s statements, her work is at a disadvantage.

When President Donald Trump blocked me in June, apparently for suggesting that Russia influenced the outcome of the 2016 election, he harmed me professionally,” Buckwalter-Poza wrote in an op-ed for Fortune magazine. “I am proud to stand up for the right to free speech, which is essential to not only to individual people — and entire professions — but democracy.”

Jaffer said the nature of the blocking contributes to the case’s “very strong” First Amendment argument.

The act of blocking somebody from the President’s Twitter account can be thought of as blocking access to government information. @realDonaldTrump is a channel the President has opened up to the public and then denied it or closed it specifically to people who criticized him. That selective denial of access is a violation of the First Amendment,” said Jaffer.

Since becoming president, Trump has tweeted about nine times a day from @realDonaldTrump, according to Jaffer. The account was created in 2009, when Trump was a private businessman. Now the account is being used for government communications, from announcing new policies to discussing meetings with foreign leaders. The White House official Twitter account, @POTUS, has not blocked the seven users, but Jaffer said the two accounts are being used interchangeably to disseminate government messages.

The President has not just impeded access to government statements but denied an opportunity to respond to them. The First Amendment protects the petition to address the President with grievances,” said Jaffer.

Jaffer, who previously served as deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the challenge against the President helps address an important question: Is the First Amendment sufficient for the digital age?

We inherited the current framework based on a particular conception of the threats to free speech from the Supreme Court about 50 years ago,” said Jaffer. “The threats we are now most concerned with look very different.”


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