The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sent a letter to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) Wednesday urging him to stop blocking Twitter users from his @JohnCornyn account due to differing viewpoints.
Cornyn’s office had not responded to a request for comment at the time of this post.
The letter stops short of threatening legal action, but it does note that the courts have held in favor of their argument—that public officials cannot block people from their social media accounts—including its case involving President Donald Trump.
“We are hoping that litigation isn’t necessary, but of course we would consider that if the letter is not effective,” Knight Institute senior staff attorney Katie Fallow said in an interview with Adweek.
The Knight Institute’s letter highlighted the case of Heath Mayo, a Texas voter and former intern for Cornyn.
Mayo retweeted it the following day, saying, “I just don’t understand the thought process that gets a senior-ranking senator to say, ‘You know what? I think I’ll post this picture of a Corona beer in an empty restaurant where I’m dining, in direct disregard of CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and government guidance—a government for which I’m a spokesman.”
On April 11, Mayo tweeted that he had been blocked by Cornyn.
UPDATED 5 p.m. ET May 13: Mayo tweeted Wednesday afternoon that he had been unblocked by Cornyn’s account, and CNN contributor and political columnist Amanda Carpenter said in a reply to Mayo’s tweet that she was unblocked, as well.
The Knight Institute said in its letter that Mayo was not the only Twitter user to be blocked by Cornyn or his staff. On April 30, Austin resident Todd Beardsley sued Cornyn for blocking him. “I honestly and truly have no idea why Sen. Cornyn blocked me,” Beardsley told the Austin American-Statesman. One day after filing suit, the senator reversed course and unblocked him.
Fallow said, “Sen. Cornyn has used his Twitter account to communicate with the public about official government business, including about the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As multiple courts have held, public officials can’t lawfully block people from their social media accounts simply because they don’t like what they’ve posted. These accounts are public forums, and the First Amendment bars government officials from excluding people from them based solely on viewpoint.”
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in May 2018 that Trump’s blocking of Twitter users with differing political viewpoints was a violation of the First Amendment, and Trump’s appeal of that ruling was overturned last July by a panel of three judges on the Second Circuit.
Trump’s request for an en banc review was denied in March.
The plaintiffs in the case, plus dozens of others that the Knight Institute sent to the Justice Department, have been unblocked by the president, but many others remain blocked for a variety of reasons. The president, for one, has refused to unblock those he blocked before taking office, Fallow said. The Knight Institute says that the Department of Justice has until late August to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
This summer, the institute sent a similar letter to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) for blocking critics on Twitter. One of those critics, former New York State Sen. Dov Hikind, sued Ocasio-Cortez (the Knight Institute did not represent Hikind in the legal action). She eventually apologized and unblocked Hikind as part of a settlement in November.
Fallow said the Knight Institute sent its letter Wednesday because, “It’s important that public officials across the political spectrum abide by those constitutional principles.”
The First Amendment, however, does not solely apply to high-profile politicians. In Davison v. Randall, litigated by the Knight Institute, Virginia resident Brian Davison filed suit after he was blocked from the Facebook page of Phyllis J. Randall, chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. Last January, the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Facebook page was in fact a public forum and it was “unconsitutional viewpoint discrimination” to bar Davison from accessing the page.
UPDATED 1 p.m. ET May 15: A spokesperson for Sen. Cornyn responded to Adweek’s request for comment, claiming that following these reversals, “nobody is blocked from viewing Sen. Cornyn’s tweets, nor will they be in the future.”