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The US Supreme Court on Monday tossed a lower court’s ruling over former President Donald Trump’s attempt to block critics from his now-suspended Twitter account, a decision in which Justice Clarence Thomas questioned the absolute power of social media companies to kick users off their platforms.
The court threw out a decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York that Trump’s attempts to block critics violated the First Amendment, concluding that the former president’s permanent suspension from Twitter makes the issue moot.
But Thomas, in his opinion, wrote that while Trump had “limited control” of his 89 million followers, Twitter has total power.
“The disparity between Twitter’s control and Mr. Trump’s control is stark, to say the least. Mr. Trump blocked several people from interacting with his messages. Twitter barred Mr. Trump not only from interacting with a few users, but removed him from the entire platform, thus barring all Twitter users from interacting with his messages,” Thomas wrote in the decision.
He said the defendants in the lawsuit had a point that Trump’s account resembled “a constitutionally protected public forum. But it seems rather odd to say that something is a government forum when a private company has unrestricted authority to do away with it.”
The justice signaled that media companies, which under law can moderate their users’ content, may have to be looked at as monopolies.
“Today’s digital platforms provide avenues for historically unprecedented amounts of speech, including speech by government actors. Also unprecedented, however, is the concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties,” Thomas said.
“We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms,” he said.
Trump used his Twitter account — @realdonaldtrump — to issue statements regarding his administration’s policies and to counter his critics by allowing him to bypass the filter he said the regular media placed on his communications.
Twitter banned Trump’s account two days after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”
Twitter and other social media companies have come under criticism from Trump and others for their censorship policies.
Thomas likened the social media companies to “common carriers,” public and private companies that transmit services for a fee, but pointed out that firms like Twitter, Facebook and Google have power that goes far beyond traditional communication companies.
“It changes nothing that these platforms are not the sole means for distributing speech or information. A person always could choose to avoid the toll bridge or train and instead swim the Charles River or hike the Oregon Trail,” Thomas said.
“But in assessing whether a company exercises substantial market power, what matters is whether the alternatives are comparable. For many of today’s digital platforms, nothing is,” he added.
The case began when a number of people Trump blocked in 2017 sued with assistance from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
The New York court ruled last year that Trump’s use of his account made it official in nature.
With Post wires
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