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Are elected officials entitled to personal Twitter accounts? Expert says context matters.

A screen showing the logos of different social media platforms.
Attorney and lecturer Faith Sparr says that whether elected officials are entitled to personal social media accounts depends on what kind of content they post while using those accounts.

Last week, a federal appeals court ruled that President Donald Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking critics on Twitter. 

In Michigan, state politicians are also wrestling with the parameters of free speech online. That's after GOP state Representative Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) called out Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel for blocking him from her personal Twitter account.

Faith Sparr is an attorney and a University of Michigan lecturer in Communication Studies. She says that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the argument that Twitter serves as a kind of “public forum” under the First Amendment. 

In cases like Attorney General Nessel’s, Sparr says whether or not elected officials are entitled to the use of personal social media accounts depends on the type of content they post online.

“If they are talking about what they did over the weekend with their family, if they’re talking about a show they saw, if they’re talking about things that are really personal, I think that even the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision would indicate that they can do that,” Sparr said.

But once elected officials begin tweeting public pronouncements or announcing policy changes on their personal Twitter accounts — as President Trump does often — Sparr says that the comment threads below those tweets becomes a public space where dissenting opinions cannot be blocked.

It is possible that platforms like Twitter could one day implement a “time, place, and manner” restriction that addresses the specific language people use to express their viewpoints. But in the aftermath of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision, Sparr says:

“I think a lot of government officials — if they have any attorney in their ear at all  — they’re going to be sitting down and thinking hard, and thinking twice, about blocking users.” 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.

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