By JOHN McBRYDE
A lawsuit involving President Donald Trump and his Twitter account will likely lead to a new law on the use of social media for elected officials, including members of the Williamson County Schools’ Board of Education who have Twitter, Facebook and similar accounts.
During a presentation at Tuesday’s school board retreat at the district’s Entrepreneurship & Innovation Center, WCS general counsel Dana Ausbrooks updated board members on the case in which the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed a lawsuit against Trump and the U.S. government for his decision to block critics from his Twitter account.
The Knight group filed on behalf of seven citizens who were blocked from the @realDonaldTrump account, which is his personal account, but one that he regularly uses to make tweets on various policy issues or to insult political foes.
Trump uses his personal account considerably more often than the official White House account @POTUS, and the lawsuit says that makes @realDonaldTrump a “public forum” under the First Amendment.
The case could eventually make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ausbrooks told board members and central office staff at the retreat.
“Both parties — the government and the seven plaintiffs — agree that [Trump] regularly conducted official business on his personal Twitter account,” she said. “There is no factual dispute about that.
“The district courts ruled that his tweets on his personal account were a designated public forum. … The action of blocking those people was unconstitutional.”
Trump and the government appealed, and that case went before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. All three judges affirmed the district court’s holding that President Trump’s practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account violates the First Amendment.
Just last week, on Aug. 23, Trump’s lawyers asked for the case to be heard by the full court for the Second Circuit.
“If I were a betting woman,” Ausbrooks said, “I would bet that the Second Circuit is going to still agree that this is unconstitutional, and I anticipate that regardless of the outcome, this will go to the Supreme Court. We are going to have a law [regarding social media and public officials]. If that happens, that affects every single elected official.”
Board member Eric Welch, 10th District, said later that it can be a fine line between “official” and “personal” when it comes to the world of social media.
“Social media is changing and growing so fast that it’s a challenge at times to know the proper etiquette for every scenario,” he said Thursday afternoon. “As a general rule, I assume anything I write might eventually be read by my mom or pastor and try to keep it audience-appropriate.
“In my role as a WCS board member, I see tools like Twitter, Facebook and others as a means of distributing factual information to the public, advocating for our district and students, but try to avoid anything that might be seen as deliberating on school business or give the impression that I’m speaking on behalf of the board or district. We have a board code of ethics that we all sign and agree to be bound by and that shouldn’t change just because the communication is done digitally versus in-person.”
Brad Fiscus, the newest member on the board who represents the 4thDistrict, said he prefers engaging through email or, even more so, by phone or in person.
“I think as community leaders, we have to be aware of who our audience is and who it could be,” said Fiscus, who announced in July he is running as an Independent against Rep. Glen Casada for the District 63 seat in the Tennessee State Legislature in 2020. “When I choose to post something, I try to think through what it is I am trying to say, why I am saying it, and what the potential response might be.
“If I need to engage in conversation, sometimes that happens through exchange of emails, but I prefer to do that in person or over the phone. I will remove content from my pages if it is offensive in language, but I try to let the person who posted it know before removing it.”
Elected officials do have certain rights regarding their social media lives, as Ausbrooks pointed out in her presentation:
- The judge suggested the public official may “mute” the account.
- Politicians have the right to NOT engage with individuals.
- Politicians MUST keep their private and official accounts separate with NO crossover between the two.