Preserve, protect, de-friend

Is Trump’s Twitter a public forum?

Artwork: Nate Beeler

By Sarah Sidlow

Newsflash: President Trump loves Twitter. A lot. And his fondness for the Little Blue Bird has raised a lot of questions: Can tweets be official statements? Should Trump be using his personal account in the capacity of the president? What happens if the president blocks an American citizen? And where does the First Amendment fit in all of this?

Trump regularly uses his @realDonaldTrump account—favoring it over the official @POTUS account—to announce policies, trash opponents, and condemn the mainstream media (MSM). He says he loves the ability to communicate directly with “the people,” and has argued that it’s a way to combat false information perpetrated by the MSM. Recently, he used it to announce his nomination of Christopher Wray to be the new director of the FBI.

So America (and the White House communications team) is dying to know: is Trump’s Twitter a public platform?

Some say it absolutely is. Unless users actively make their Twitter account private, it is, by default, public. That means that anyone in the world with internet can find your Twitter account and everything within it. It also means that journalists can quote something said on Twitter in a news story. These are the terms users accept every time they click “tweet.”

Because President Trump uses @realDonaldTrump for official business, and because he allows replies to his tweets, many believe he has turned the account into a public forum. Here’s where things get extra tricky: if Trump’s (or any other public official’s) Twitter account is a public forum, then First Amendment protections apply. Which means when Trump blocks Twitter users who disagree with him, he may be violating a citizen’s First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Side note: this is also happening at the local and state levels. In Arizona, a disabled Army veteran responded to her congressman blocking her by delivering actual blocks to his office.

But others argue that the @realDonaldTrump account isn’t a public forum—it’s nothing more than a citizen’s account. The argument here is that Trump started his Twitter prior to becoming president (he even used it to announce his candidacy) and as a private citizen, he should be able to talk to or block whomever he chooses.

Moreover, they argue, Twitter is just a company—meaning it isn’t necessarily regulated by the First Amendment. The Bird makes its own rules, and as long as Trump isn’t violating Twitter’s policies, many believe he should be allowed to continue operating it as he sees fit.

Bonus fun fact: the @realDonaldTrump account boasts 31 million followers. According to a Twitter Audit report, only about 51 percent of those are real. The rest are likely fake accounts or Twitter Bots—software programs that artificially tweet and retweet.

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.


Debate Question of the Week : Is President Trump’s Twitter a public forum?


To tweet or not to tweet

Trump turned his account into a public matter

By Tim Smith

Being a public figure carries a different set of expectations than those of a private citizen. When you’re an elected official, it’s understood that what you say in public or post online becomes fair game. You can be quoted, analyzed, criticized, or applauded. You can still speak your mind and offer your opinion, but you’re leaving yourself open to rebuttal and commentary. It’s called freedom of speech. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

President Trump forfeited a good portion of his privacy when he made himself the most public citizen in America. This is what he wanted, and it’s what he got. Now he needs to learn to live with it. To get where he is now, he made extensive (some might say obsessive) use of Twitter to communicate with “[his] kind of people,” as he put it.

Since moving into the Oval Office, he has continued to use his personal Twitter account to communicate with the public. For him now to claim that his account is private and then use that as an excuse to block responders who contradict him should come as no surprise, considering his characteristic narcissism and pathological need for control. He can’t have it both ways.

The moment he used that account to discuss official business, he turned it into a public forum. That means that the First Amendment protects responders to his posts, just as it protects him when he posted his messages. If he only wants to hear from like-minded people who won’t disagree with him, he should make it a “members only” thing and charge a hefty fee like he does at his country clubs.

He has used this form of social media for everything other than what it was intended for. It was on @realDonaldTrump that he announced his candidacy, his replacement choice for fired FBI director James Comey, his intention to pull the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, and his plan to change America’s agreement with Cuba. If that doesn’t qualify as official business shared with the public, I don’t know what does. Twitter’s intent was to create buzz and encourage social interactions. I don’t think the founders envisioned it as a platform for acrimonious hate speech, insults, threats, and bullying.

Twitter’s rules of use allow anyone to block anyone else, but they also have a “hateful conduct” policy governing abusive posts. It doesn’t sound like POTUS read that one before he started shooting off his mouth about the evil mainstream media, fake news, world leaders, and anyone else who criticizes him. Trump has argued that what he posts is covered by the First Amendment; apparently, he doesn’t feel obligated to afford the same privilege to the people he was elected to serve.

On Facebook, you can un-friend someone or delete a post, the same as Twitter. If you run a blog or chat board, you can remove any post that your readers might deem offensive and block the person who posted it. This is called being responsible. Some sites and chat boards get around the whole public versus private issue by making it open to members only. My publisher does a variation on this with its chat boards—one is for authors to discuss company business, while the other is open to the public so authors can engage with readers.

I’ve personally been smacked a few times because I didn’t think twice or proofread before I hit the “send” button. When I realized my mistake, I expected consequences for my carelessness. After being called out, did I put the poster on my blocked sender list or reply with a nasty rebuttal? No. I accepted the criticism, apologized for not thinking first, and made damn sure I didn’t do it again. See how simple that is?

Regarding one of his biggest strengths, Trump has said, “I Tweet out my unfiltered thoughts.” It’s also one of his biggest weaknesses—and a trait that one would expect from a high school freshman who doesn’t understand self-restraint or socially acceptable discourse.

The First Amendment guarantees every American the right to express an opinion in a public forum. When someone else infringes upon that fundamental right because they didn’t like what was said, it’s called arrogance and demagoguery (you could probably throw in dictatorship, too).

Side note: Isn’t it odd that Trump defends using his personal Twitter account in an official capacity when he made a campaign issue out of Hillary Clinton’s use of her private email to discuss State Department business?

Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com. 


Nitweets

Quiet the cries for attention on Twitter

By Ben Tomkins

Twitter sucks. Sorry, I know there are a lot of people out there who have made it their go-to platform for filling the voids between meaningful experiences in their life—which are usually quite vast for all of us—but consistently participating in something doesn’t make it not suck. For anyone who cares to debate that point, I would direct you to every episode of Full House ever made, and every episode of the even more horrific reboot Fuller House.

The filing of a lawsuit against President Trump for blocking people who annoy him on Twitter is the most pathetic appeal for attention I have ever had the displeasure of having to auger out of my brain with a snapped coat hanger. The theory is that people who have been blocked from Trump’s feed are being denied their First Amendment right to be present at a public forum. The lawyers are arguing—and I’m guessing drinking very, very early in the morning to get through the day—that Twitter is being used in a way that is equivalent to Trump holding a city council meeting, and they have a constitutional right to attend. They argue that by being blocked they are unable to attend.

I’m terribly sorry to have to mention it, but Twitter is simply not a public forum. It is a private company, and for that matter, they can kick off anyone they like for any reason they choose. This includes, terrifyingly enough, the president himself, which would probably result in Trump unmaking the world as his pent-up opinions went supercritical inside his gigantic tangerine head. As funny as that would be, privacy in one’s own skull does bring up an extremely important point, which has gone almost entirely unmentioned.

A quick reading of Twitter’s terms of use agreement reveals that they systematically compile and share information on its users, and distribute at their leisure to various domestic and international service providers, as well as “service affiliates” that deal with advertising. This personal data incudes all your profile and account creation information, any credit card data they have collected, and locations and timestamps, to name a few. They even mine your actual tweets for any relevant information they can use and/or distribute to affiliates. They also lob this stuff out to companies that store and sift through data, such as Google Analytics. In other words, Twitter is keeping a gigantic file on our president, and every time he tweets they get more goods on him.

This may not sound like much, but when you’ve got someone in office who twerks like a sea anemone poked with a stick every time he watches network news, the day companies filling up the presidential screen have a legitimate chance of affecting policy. If you’re surprised to read in the media tomorrow that Fleshlight has been contracted to replace birth control in all USAid shipments…don’t be.

I will begrudgingly admit that people might have a right to read his tweets given that Sean Spicer recently described them as “official communication.” As for this business about the First Amendment right to respond to them, I can only offer the following:

What if you went and f–ked yourself instead? Did you think about it like that? Nobody on the planet will submit to acknowledging your existence against their will.

You may have a right to talk, but there’s no way in hell you can force people to stand there and listen to you. That’s the request of a whiny, attention-starved, obnoxiously drunk sorority girl at a club who is furious that—for some unknowable reason—no guy wants to hook up with her. As we all know, nothing good comes of it when an extreme sense of self-importance and a wounded ego mutually annihilate, and you need look no farther than the president himself.

He makes it his business to draw people into his world by playing on the failed Hollywood star in all of us that is coming to grips with our relative insignificance one uneventful day at a time. Whereas many people find a third path in life that includes a family, travel, hobbies, and an exploration of the things in this world that make life interesting, others will forever wail and gnash their teeth at the mortar of reality’s immurement. They can be found in dive bars on Tuesday nights, standing around entrances to clubs they can’t get into making a great deal of noise, and yes, all over Twitter.

Give it up, get your own Twitter community, get a life, and most importantly, get the f–k out of here with this nonsense.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. For more of his work, visit HillofAthens.com. Reach him at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Ben Tomkins
Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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