DENVER | Colorado state lawmakers pushed a bill to the governor’s desk that would give politicians carte blanche to block social media users — including constituents — on their “private” accounts just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would consider to what extent that’s legal.
The idea has sparked a national debate as social media becomes an increasingly popular tool for politicians to squeeze arguments into 280-character Tweets, laud their successes, air their grievances, and announce official business — all of which blurs the line between personal accounts and public forums.
That fuzzy line has already spurred a litany of lawsuits, including one against former President Donald Trump, but legal precedent remains slim.
The legislation’s bipartisan sponsors argue that it’s merely drawing a line between public and private lives and liken it to a public town hall — if two constituents began screeching at each other or harassed or intimidating onlookers, they would be rightfully removed.
“(It’s having) the same treatment from the physical world to the social media world,” said Rep. Matt Soper, a Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors. Soper said it appears to be the first bill of it’s kind in the country and argued that it’s a step forward in grappling with “the wild, wild West of our generation.”
The bill would allow a politician to block a user “for any reason,” and detractors worry it staunches the public’s access to their representatives and limits their ability to voice opinions and engage in debate. Another concern is that politicians could freeze out reporters.
“If a politician doesn’t like what a journalist has written about them, blocking them impedes our ability to report on what’s going on,” said Tim Regan-Porter, CEO of the Colorado Press Association. “It’s a troubling precedent.”
U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Trump, on his long-held @realDonaldTrump account, have both faced lawsuits for blocking other Twitter users. A lower court ruled that Trump violated the First Amendment whenever he blocked a critic to silence a viewpoint, but the Supreme Court declined in 2021 to hear the case, partly citing Trump’s account being then-suspended from the platform.
Greene settled her case, a common outcome of such litigation. At least two similar lawsuits in Colorado were also settled, leaving a void of legal precedent.
The Colorado bill is modeled off a 2022 federal court ruling that sided with the city manager of Port Huron, Michigan, who was sued for removing posts from a Facebook page he used to communicate with the public. That case is now heading to the Supreme Court, which will not hear the case before fall.
The legislation outlines three criterion to determine whether an elected official’s social media page is private: if the official is not required to have the account, if taxpayer dollars are not used to manage or maintain it, and if the account holder is able to keep it after they leave office.
That criteria, however, generally does not include the account’s content. On a private page, for example, an elected official could still largely post about their work, bills they were supporting or opposing, announcements or political discussions.
If passed, Colorado’s law would seemingly protect, for example, Trump’s right to block social media users on his personal Twitter account, which he used to make policy pronouncements and communicate with Americans before and after his tenure as president.
It would not, however, allow Trump to block users on the official account of the U.S. president such as @POTUS or @WhiteHouse, which are passed from one administration to the next and managed by staff.
“If I’m at a bar and I decide to talk to my friend about a bill I’m running … does that make my conversation public?” argued Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors. “As an elected official, every single part of our lives is not public.”
Herod argued that the intent of the law is largely to stop some who may harass or intimidate from chilling the free speech of others who are engaging online in good-faith.
Regan-Porter pushed back, offering an example. “It’s not just important what the law says, but what the intent was, why they chose to do it, and what parties might have influenced them,” he said, “and pronouncements on social media can give clearer understanding of what went into a decision.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis didn’t not immediately respond to questions regarding his position on the bill.
Jesse Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.