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Gov’t officials can block Americans on social media, Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court. (Joe Sohm/Dreamstime/TNS)
March 19, 2024

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled Friday that government officials can legally block constituents on social media in certain situations when it is clear they are not claiming to be exercising their official authority.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in “Lindke v. Freed” centered around Michigan resident Kevin Lindke’s lawsuit against Port Huron City Manager James Freed. Lindke filed the lawsuit after Freed blocked him from his Facebook page due to comments the constituent made regarding the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Daily Caller.

In the Supreme Court’s opinion, Justice Amy Coney Barrett explained that while government officials frequently interact with their constituents on social media and “may look like they are always on the clock,” she said the officials are also “private citizens with their own constitutional rights.”

“Thus, if Freed acted in his private capacity when he blocked Lindke and deleted his comments, he did not violate Lindke’s First Amendment rights—instead, he exercised his own,” Barrett stated. “The distinction between private conduct and state action turns on substance, not labels: Private parties can act with the authority of the State, and state officials have private lives and their own constitutional rights.”

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The Supreme Court ruled that in order to sue Freed for blocking him on social media, Lindke had to show that the city manager “had actual authority” from the state to speak on “a particular matter” and that Freed had used that authority “in relevant posts” on social media. “Lindke cannot hang his hat on Freed’s status as a state employee,” Barrett argued.

According to Barrett, public officials have a “choice” regarding the “capacity in which they choose to speak.” She added that if a public official does not “use his speech in furtherance of his official responsibilities,” then the official is using “his own voice” and is not liable for a lawsuit.

In another ruling issued on Friday, the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit Court’s previous ruling in “Garnier v. O’Connor-Ratcliff.” According to The Daily Calller, the case was directed against two California school board members who had blocked parents on social media. While the Ninth Circuit Court previously ruled that the two officials acted “under color of state law,” the Supreme Court sent the case back for “further proceedings consistent with our opinion.”