Should We Have a Right to Troll Politicians on Twitter?

Should We Have a Right to Troll Politicians on Twitter?

Should We Have a Right to Troll Politicians on Twitter?

The courts say we do, but I’m not so sure.


Two hundred and forty-three years and five days after the founding fathers declared independence, the the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied the president the right to do the same by blocking his followers on Twitter. The next day, former New York State assemblyman Dov Hikind (best known for his hair-trigger vigilance against anti-Semitism—and a tendency to dress up in black face) decided to test-drive the 29-page decision by filing a lawsuit against Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’d blocked him. As if on cue, a YouTube influencer turned Republican candidate for Congress by the name of Joseph Saladino (aka Joey Salads) joined the struggle in an apparent attempt to “own the libs,” tweeting:

They’ve both since made the media rounds to promote the virtue of their cause.

Like the Knight Institute’s case against Trump—which argued that extensive use of Twitter makes it a “public forum” that can’t discriminate against users with opposing viewpoints—Hikind and Saladino claim that by blocking them, Ocasio-Cortez is violating their First Amendment rights too. But unlike the president’s eight named plaintiffs, Hikind and Saladino are neither Ocasio-Cortez’s constituents nor engaged in honest criticism.

They’re suing for the right to troll her, which begs the question: Should a public official ever be able to block someone, and do we have an unfettered right to follow them?

Full disclosure: I’ve been blocked by two people that I know of, including my state senator, Kevin Parker. Parker blocked me after I retweeted a photo of him presenting a “Woman of Distinction Award” with a comment about how such awards allow problematic men to appear sympathetic (Parker has a history of verbally harassing women). And I’ve blocked or muted followers, mostly men, who’ve offended me with insults, bigotry, or just plain stupidity. In one case, a guy I hadn’t spoken to since middle school decided to scream from the safety of his screen that I should be embarrassed for something I’d written. In others, it’s been complete strangers crowding out my mental space with their urgent need to let me know how little they think of me.

For high-profile women on Twitter it can be so much worse. A 2017 Amnesty International report analyzed 228,000 tweets sent to 778 women politicians and journalists in the UK and US, and, using algorithms to extrapolate for scale, found that such women receive 1.1 million “problematic or abusive” tweets in a single year. Women of color are 84 percent more likely to be targeted than white women. In Twitter’s own “Hateful Conduct Policy,” the social media site acknowledges that “some groups of people are disproportionately targeted with abuse online.” And “for those who identify with multiple underrepresented groups, abuse may be more common, more severe in nature and have a higher impact on those targeted.”

Men generally experience abuse as mere name calling (i.e., “You’re a moron!”), compared to women who receive graphic insults and threats of gender-based violence. There are real costs to hearing repeatedly that you should be tied up and raped for having an opinion. Blocking or muting someone can be an act of self-preservation on a site that still barely enforces its own policies, in purported deference to First Amendment absolutists (perish the thought that Twitter tolerates these car crashes because the rubberneckers are good for business). Never mind women’s right to speak freely without being harassed. Yet Hikind’s suit argues precisely this point, using the popularity and profusion of Ocasio-Cortez’s tweets as evidence against her. In the truest representation of how he sees the freshman congresswoman, Hikind’s lawsuit objectifies her over and over again as “AOC”—a brand—while granting “Mr. Hikind” the courtesy of personhood throughout.

The fact is, it shouldn’t be open season on Ocasio-Cortez just because she’s a public official. The former assemblyman himself blocked numerous reporters when he was in office, including Chris Bragg at the Albany Times Union, who wrote a story about an ethics investigation into Hikind’s campaign finances. I’m not even convinced that I’m entitled to follow my own representative, Senator Parker. I think it’s incredibly petty for him to block me, but no one has a right to be on Twitter to begin with, including the president.

Regardless, the trolls may very well have a legal leg to stand on. Based on the court’s ruling, the First Amendment “does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise‐open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees.”

If that’s the case, Ocasio-Cortez can take advantage of Twitter’s option to mute mentions from anyone she doesn’t choose to follow. The trolls can shout at her all they want, but the Constitution does not require her to listen to them.

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