Supreme Court Sets Limits on School Officials Blocking Critics Online

School board members have the authority to restrict constituents from interacting on social media platforms, but only if the comments pertain to matters outside their jurisdiction or disclose personal information, according to a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court issued on Friday. The Court clarified the First Amendment criteria governing online governance.

“Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in a unanimous decision centered on a Michigan city manager but applicable to all government officials, emphasized that the distinction between private actions and state actions relies on substance, not mere labels,” as per SupremeCourt.gov.

The Court emphasized that for social media interactions to constitute state action, an official must wield state authority and indicate its use. If the official engages in a personal capacity rather than in an official role, it is considered personal expression, the ruling stated.

Following the decision, a federal appeals court must now apply the established standard in a California case involving two Poway school board members who blocked parents posting lengthy, critical comments on Facebook and X.

Attorney Cory Briggs, representing Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, expressed confidence that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will rule in their favor. Briggs argued that Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane, the board members involved, held official authority as trustees, evident in their use of social media for interaction with constituents.

This case is one of four before the Supreme Court dealing with social media issues this term. The justices aimed to resolve discrepancies among appellate courts, with the Sixth Circuit ruling differently from the Ninth Circuit in similar disputes, concerning the use of social media by government officials.

The ruling did not fully satisfy Katie Fallow, a prominent First Amendment advocate who previously sued ex-President Donald Trump over analogous concerns. Fallow lauded the Court’s affirmation of constituents’ petitioning rights but criticized the standard’s potential challenges, expressing reservations on Twitter here.

“The Court opted against the practical test applied by most appellate courts to balance public officials’ free speech rights with constituents’ access to social media interactions,” Fallow said in a statement. She urged courts to ensure ongoing protection for speech and dissent on digital platforms.

In a separate case before the Sixth Circuit, Barrett illustrated a scenario where an official’s actions may not violate a citizen’s rights.

“If a city manager, like Freed, posts about local restaurants violating health codes and deletes derisive user comments, with public health not falling under the city manager’s jurisdiction, neither the post nor the deletions can be linked to state authority,” Barrett explained.

While acknowledging officials’ private lives even on social media platforms, Barrett cautioned against using personal accounts for official matters, as it could restrict public comments on relevant issues, potentially leading to legal repercussions.

“A public official using personal accounts for official communication may face increased liability risks if personal posts are not clearly separated from official business,” Barrett highlighted.

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