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IPFS News Link • Censorship

U.S. Supreme Court Does Not Go Far Enough in Determining When Government Officials...

• By Sophia Cope and David Greene

After several years of litigation across the federal appellate courts, the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous opinion has finally crafted a test that lower courts can use to determine whether a government official engaged in "state action" such that censoring individuals on the official's social media page—even if also used for personal purposes—would violate the First Amendment.

The case, Lindke v. Freed, came out of the Sixth Circuit and involves a city manager, while a companion case called O'Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier came out of the Ninth Circuit and involves public school board members.

A Two-Part Test

The First Amendment prohibits the government from censoring individuals' speech in public forums based on the viewpoints that individuals express. In the age of social media, where people in government positions use public-facing social media for both personal, campaign, and official government purposes, it can be unclear whether the interactive parts (e.g., comments section) of a social media page operated by someone who works in government amount to a government-controlled public forum subject to the First Amendment's prohibition on viewpoint discrimination. Another way of stating the issue is whether a government official who uses a social media account for personal purposes is engaging in state action when they also use the account to speak about government business.

As the Supreme Court states in the Lindke opinion, "Sometimes … the line between private conduct and state action is difficult to draw," and the question is especially difficult "in a case involving a state or local official who routinely interacts with the public."