It was good news that a federal judge ruled that Republican state legislators blocking political opponents on Twitter is a free-speech violation. We say it’s good news that is more bipartisan than it might first appear.
A federal judge Jan. 18 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 Wisconsin State Journal reported.
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 Donald 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.
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.
Here’s the bipartisan part: Judge Conley’s ruling lays down a marker for elected officials’ interaction with constituents on social media. We’re laymen, but we believe we know the establishment of precedent when we see it.
If, for example, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, were to block the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty or Pro-Life Wisconsin from following him on Twitter, we’re certain Judge Conley — and, presumably, any other federal judge — would rule that also is a free-speech violation.
If a state legislator holds a town-hall meeting, he or she cannot restrict access to those known to be supporters of that legislator. When the doors of the community center or school gymnasium are thrown open, those who walk in are free to pose questions and make statements, and as long as the questions and statements are civil the legislator is obligated to listen.
The same principle should apply on the new frontier of social media. Judge Conley ruled that it does.
Elected officials are obligated to listen to all of their constituents, not just the ones that agree with them. That applies to Democrats as well as Republicans.