In the wake of the Knight Institute’s Knight v. Trump case, courts now broadly acknowledge that public officials using their social media accounts as public forums run afoul of the First Amendment when they block followers because of their viewpoints.
But as campaign season heats up, an important distinction arises: Since a candidate isn’t a public official—and their social media account, even if political, is personal—the candidate can limit followers without violating the First Amendment. That holds true for a current government actor running for re-election, so long as that actor’s campaign account is separate from any official account and is used for campaign purposes only.
However, it’s important to note that designating or labeling an account as a “campaign account” is not in itself sufficient to escape First Amendment scrutiny. If a public official uses a “campaign account” to carry out official duties—such as to make announcements about the candidate’s currently held public office, to post about the candidate’s work in office, to advocate for certain legislation or measures the candidate is working on, or to engage with the public about actions taken by the candidate as a public official—then that account will still likely qualify as a government-run public forum.
The Knight Institute’s letters to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. John Cornyn, and Mayor Christina L. Shea of Irvine, California, help illustrate the factors considered in determining whether an account labeled as a “personal” or “campaign” account qualifies instead as a government-run public forum.
Bottom line: True campaign social media accounts are not First Amendment public forums, as long as they are kept separate from official accounts or not also used for official purposes.
For further information on government officeholders and social media, visit our updated Social Media for Public Officials 101 fact sheet. We offer guidance on how public officials can maintain a personal social media account, why officials are prohibited from blocking people if they use their account as an extension of their office, how to adopt and share account policies, how to keep limits on users viewpoint-neutral, and how to enforce rules consistently and with due process.
If you’ve been blocked by a public official from that official’s government-run account, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know.
Alyssa Morones is a legal fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute.
Katie Fallow is senior counsel at the Knight Institute.