Is Trump’s Twitter behavior constitutional? A court will decide.

Is Trump’s Twitter behavior constitutional? A court will decide.

President Trump. A similar spectacle, though, has been unfolding continuously since Trump took office — on the president’s Twitter account. Many of the president’s Twitter followers — millions of them, by some counts — are bots programmed to create the impression that Trump and his statements are more popular than they are. And while social-media dissenters aren’t penned in side streets, the president “blocks” some of his sharpest Twitter critics, disabling them from participating in the forum created by his account. This week’s hearing relates to a First Amendment lawsuit the Knight Institute filed on behalf of Twitter users whom the president blocked for criticizing him. But while the case focuses on Trump’s social media practices, it’s likely to have broader ramifications. As the Supreme Court observed last term, public officials around the country now engage with their constituents principally through social media. Recycling arguments made by President Richard Nixon, he argues that an order barring him from blocking critics would represent an intolerable intrusion into powers the Constitution commits exclusively to him. The Supreme Court rejected similar arguments when Nixon made them, and Trump has an even weaker hand in this case. The question of how the First Amendment applies to public officials’ social media accounts is a novel one.

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President Trump. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Jameel Jaffer is executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and a former deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

When President Trump delivered an address in Krasinski Square in central Warsaw last summer, Poland’s nationalist government bused in supporters to swell the ranks of the crowd. There were protesters, but police managed to isolate most of them in side streets, invisible to Trump and most of the television cameras. When Trump declared that “America loves Poland, and America loves the Polish people,” the Polish people — or at least those permitted in the square — answered with rapturous applause.

We tend to associate political spectacles such as this with authoritarian regimes, and it was disquieting to see an American president playing a starring role in this one. A similar spectacle, though, has been unfolding continuously since Trump took office — on the president’s Twitter account.

Many of the president’s Twitter followers — millions of them, by some counts — are bots programmed to create the impression that Trump and his statements are more popular than they are. And while social-media dissenters aren’t penned in side streets, the president “blocks” some of his sharpest Twitter critics, disabling them from participating in the forum created by his account. This latter practice is a digital version of the same ugly censorship the president appeared to endorse in Warsaw, and its constitutionality will be the subject of a hearing in federal court on Thursday.

The president has said he uses Twitter because it allows him to communicate directly with the public. The 280-character tweet has become as important to him as radio was to Franklin D. Roosevelt and television was to John F. Kennedy. He has used Twitter to introduce new policies, announce nominations to key government posts and inveigh against convenient political scapegoats, including immigrants and the…

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