Both President Donald Trump and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin have been sued over blocking constituents on social media.
Federal judges make their own decisions at the trial court level, and the Trump ruling has no direct impact on the case against Bevin. But the judge’s ruling will likely be used to bolster the argument against social media blocking in other, similar cases like Bevin’s.
Wednesday’s ruling against Trump followed a lawsuit by seven Twitter users blocked by Trump. Bevin’s suit was filed last July by the ACLU of Kentucky, alleging that the governor is violating the free speech of his constituents by blocking them from his social media accounts.
JoAnne Sweeny, an associate professor of law at the University of Louisville who specializes in freedom of expression, said federal judge’s decisions are “persuasive,” meaning plaintiffs can use one trial court ruling to bolster another. But ultimately, the judge can take or leave it.
“This decision isn’t binding on anything that might happen with Bevin, but it does set a nice precedent,” Sweeny said. “The Kentucky judge would certainly be wise to cite this case and deal with it in their decision… but they don’t even have to do that.”
The judge who will decide the case against Bevin has already offered a glimpse of his position. In a preliminary ruling, U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove indicated that the plaintiffs appeared “unlikely to succeed on the merits of this case.”
“Today’s decision in no way affects the correct ruling already made by Judge Van Tatenhove in favor of Governor Bevin,” said Chad Meredith, Chief Deputy General Counsel for Bevin, in an emailed statement.
That statement appears to refer to Van Tatenhove’s March ruling denying a request for a preliminary injunction to prevent Bevin from blocking anyone else from his social media accounts. But that ruling only pertained to one preliminary issue, and the ACLU’s case against Bevin is still pending.
Amber Duke, communications director of the ACLU of Kentucky, says the ACLU will have a chance to show the judge examples from around the country where plaintiffs are winning, including Trump’s opponents.
Duke noted that Bevin has encouraged Kentuckians to bypass traditional media and hear directly from him through social media without providing a policy on what action might lead him to block another account.
“We think that people should have access to their public officials in this way,” Duke said. “We believe that the court will ultimately agree with us that Governor Bevin’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts are indeed public forums where his constituents should not be blocked.”
Kate Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (502) 814.6546.