New York congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t, at first blush, seem to have much in common with US president Donald Trump. In fact, the two politicians—who trade barbs regularly on Twitter—seem like total opposites.
But both are extremely active on social media, and now AOC is dealing with similar complaints as those recently faced by the commander-in-chief—and raising the same defenses.
Yesterday, free-speech experts at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute sent a letter to the congresswoman asking that she stop blocking certain Twitter followers for constitutional reasons. The same organization sent the president a similar letter in 2017, arguing that when a politician blocks followers from a Twitter account used to communicate government information, they violate the First Amendment rights of those targeted because social media is being used as a “public forum” in that context.
When Trump declined to unblock followers, the Knight Institute sued the president, winning its case last month.
Now, AOC is being sued by a blocked follower, and she recently asked a federal judge to dismiss the case filed by Dov Hikind, former Democratic assemblyman for Brooklyn. Her attorneys have contended that, among other things, the @AOC Twitter account isn’t the representative’s official government account, which resembles an argument Trump unsuccessfully made. The Knight Institute writes in its letter:
Multiple courts have held that public officials’ social media accounts constitute public forums when they are used in the way that you use the @AOC account, and they have made clear that public officials violate the First Amendment when they block users from these forums on the basis of viewpoint. Most relevant here, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently concluded that President Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking users from his Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, because “he disagree[d] with their speech.”
The free-speech experts point out that AOC’s characterization of her personal account as unofficial is incorrect because the representative uses it as an extension of her office, communicating with constituents and discussing policy initiatives. “Notably, the Second Circuit rejected President Trump’s argument that his account is a personal one even though he has other accounts—@POTUS and @WhiteHouse—that are nominally official,” the letter states.
Citing the same precedent, the letter explains that “the First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees.”
Nonetheless, the Knight Institute does acknowledge an important distinction between AOC and the president. Women and minorities in particular face harassment on social media, which means that the representative is especially targeted. So, though it hopes to “dissuade” her from the unconstitutional practice of blocking followers for certain comments, the Knight Institute wants to work with her on developing “a social media policy that both complies with the First Amendment and helps [her] address threats, abuse, and harassment.”
The representative hasn’t as yet commented on the letter online.