Supreme Court rules government officials can be sued for blocking critics

 March 19, 2024

The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that government officials can be sued for blocking their critics online in certain circumstances. 

Amy Coney Barrett wrote the brief 15-page opinion, in which the court sought to balance the privacy interests of public officials with the First Amendment right to criticize the government.

Supreme Court's 9-o ruling

The court was asked to weigh in on a dispute between James Freed, the city manager of Port Huron, Michigan, and a constituent, Kevin Lindke, who sued Freed for deleting his posts from Freed's public Facebook page.

Freed also blocked Lindke from his page, which mixed personal updates with information about his official work. Lindke had criticized Freed's response to the COVID pandemic.

Public officials "are also private citizens with their own constitutional rights," Barrett wrote. A government official is only acting on behalf of the state when his action is directly traceable to the state and its authority.

If, for example, Freed "posted a list of local restaurants with health-code violations and deleted snarky comments made by other users," the post would be fine if "public health is not within the portfolio of the city manager."

"In sum, a defendant like Freed must have actual authority rooted in written law or longstanding custom to speak for the State. That authority must extend to speech of the sort that caused the alleged rights deprivation," Barrett wrote.

"If the plaintiff cannot make this threshold showing of authority, he cannot establish state action."

Both sides claim victory

The ruling left both sides claiming victory.

“I am very pleased with the outcome the justices came to,” Freed told ABC News. “The Court rejected the plaintiff’s appearance test and further refined a test for review by the Sixth Circuit. We are extremely confident we will prevail there once more.”

Meanwhile, Lindke applauded the court's "decisive" message that "public officials cannot hide behind personal social media accounts."

The court also addressed a case involving two California school board members who were sued for blocking parents online. The Supreme Court returned that case to a lower court in a brief order.

The Supreme Court also heard oral arguments Monday in a landmark case against the Biden administration over its efforts to control "misinformation."

To the surprise of some, the court's conservatives appeared to side with the government over the conservative challengers.

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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