The Supreme Court worked hard in a pair of arguments on Tuesday to find a clear constitutional line separating elected officials’ purely private social media accounts from ones that reflect government actions and are subject to the First Amendment. After three hours, though, it was not clear that a majority of the justices had settled on a clear test.
The question in the two cases was when the Constitution limits officials’ ability to block users from their accounts. The answer turned on whether the officials’ use of the accounts amounted to “state action,” which is governed by the First Amendment, or private activity, which is not.
That same question had seemed headed to the Supreme Court after the federal appeals court in New York ruled in 2019 that President Donald J. Trump’s Twitter account was a public forum from which he was powerless to exclude people based on their viewpoints.
Had the account been private, the court said, Mr. Trump could have blocked whomever he wanted. But since he used the account as a government official, he was subject to the First Amendment.
After Mr. Trump lost the 2020 election, the Supreme Court vacated the appeals court’s ruling as moot.
Justice Elena Kagan said on Tuesday that Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed was in an important sense official and therefore subject to the First Amendment.
“I don’t think a citizen would be able to really understand the Trump presidency, if you will, without any access to all the things that the president said on that account,” Justice Kagan said. “It was an important part of how he wielded his authority. And to cut a citizen off from that is to cut a citizen off from part of the way that government works.”
Hashim M. Mooppan, a lawyer for two school board officials, said none of that implicated the First Amendment.
“President Trump could have done the same thing from Mar-a-Lago or a campaign rally,” Mr. Mooppan said. “If he gave every one of those speeches at his personal residence, it wouldn’t somehow convert his residence into government property.”
The cases argued Tuesday were the first of several this term in which the Supreme Court will consider how the First Amendment applies to social media companies. The court will hear arguments next year on both whether states may prohibit large social media companies from removing posts based on the views they express and whether Biden administration officials may contact social media platforms to combat what they say is misinformation.
The first case argued Tuesday concerned the Facebook and Twitter accounts of two members of the Poway Unified School District in California, Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane. They used the accounts, created during their campaigns, to communicate with their constituents about activities of the school board, invite them to public meetings, ask for comments on the board’s activities and discuss safety issues in the schools.
Two parents, Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, frequently posted lengthy and repetitive critical comments, and the officials eventually blocked them. The parents sued, and lower courts ruled in their favor.
“When state actors enter that virtual world and invoke their government status to create a forum for such expression, the First Amendment enters with them,” Judge Marsha S. Berzon wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco.
Mr. Mooppan said the accounts were personal and were created and maintained without any involvement by the district.
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh pressed Mr. Mooppan on what it would take to make the accounts official and so subject to the First Amendment. “Is announcing rules state action?” the justice asked.
Mr. Mooppan said it would be if the announcement was not available elsewhere. He gave a more equivocal answer to a question about notifications of school closures. But he said a general public safety reminder was not state action.
Pamela S. Karlan, a lawyer for the parents, said Ms. O’Connor-Ratcliff’s Facebook feed was almost entirely official. “Of the hundreds of posts, I found only three that were truly non-job-related,” Ms. Karlan said, adding, “I defy anyone to look at that and think this wasn’t an official website.”
The second case, Lindke v. Freed, No. 22-611, concerned a Facebook account maintained by James R. Freed, the city manager of Port Huron, Mich. He used it to comment on a variety of subjects, some personal and some official. Among the latter were descriptions of the city’s responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
The posts prompted critical responses from a resident, Kevin Lindke, whom Mr. Freed eventually blocked. Mr. Lindke sued and lost. Judge Amul R. Thapar, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, said Mr. Freed’s Facebook account was personal, meaning that the First Amendment had no role to play.
“Freed did not operate his page to fulfill any actual or apparent duty of his office,” Judge Thapar wrote. “And he did not use his governmental authority to maintain it. Thus, he was acting in his personal capacity — and there was no state action.”
Justice Kagan told Allon Kedem, a lawyer for Mr. Lindke, that Mr. Freed’s page did not look particularly official.
“There are a lot of baby pictures and dog pictures and obviously personal stuff,” she said. “And intermingled with that there is, as you say, communication with constituents about important matters. But it’s hard to look at this page as a whole, unlike the one in the last case, and not think that surely this could not be the official communications channel.”