MADISON — A federal judge Friday ruled that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and other top Republicans violated a liberal group’s constitutional rights when they blocked it from following them on Twitter.
The decision from U.S. District Judge William Conley siding with the group, One Wisconsin Now, serves to illustrate the American legal community’s emerging views on social media’s role in democracy and to what extent political speech is protected there.
Conley’s ruling, which found OWN’s free speech on a public forum was violated, follows a similar case involving President Trump, who has previously blocked followers on Twitter. In that case, the court found the president had violated the blocked users’ constitutional rights and ordered him to unblock them.
The U.S. Supreme Court has not definitely ruled on any such cases, however, it has argued social media represents a “vast democratic forum.”
In his decision, Conley wrote the Republican lawmakers in the case — Vos; Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who chairs the state’s powerful budget writing committee; and former Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum — blocked OWN’s account specifically because of its liberal political views, a violation of free speech on a public forum.
The government is very limited in its ability to regulate speech, and Conley was clear that in almost no instance can it regulate speech on the basis of its content.
If it does, it must meet a high level of scrutiny that Vos, Nygren and Kremer were not able to meet, Conley wrote.
Conley wrote the three Republicans “directly or indirectly” indicated they did not approve of OWN’s liberal viewpoint and that it contributed to blocking OWN’s account.
Conley’s decision points to a free-speech violation; however, the court has yet to determine how to resolve the dispute, whether through forcing the Republican lawmakers to unblock OWN or through other means.
OWN Executive Director Scot Ross in a statement said the ruling is a victory for open, transparent and accountable government.
“Robin Vos and his cohorts have tried to run the Legislature with unprecedented secrecy, to hide their actions from public scrutiny and suppress the voices of dissent at every turn,” Ross said. “This decision is a clear statement to Vos and others that it’s the people’s government, not their government.”
Spokespersons for Vos and Nygren didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
The court ruling is the second victory for OWN in as many days, with a federal judge Thursday striking down portions of the GOP’s legislation limiting early voting, which was passed during the extraordinary session many refer to as the lame duck session.