Philip Cohen, Eugene Gu, Holly Figueroa, Nicholas Pappas, Joseph Papp, Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, and Brandon Neely are the seven plaintiffs in Knight Institute v. Trump.
Philip Cohen, university professor, Silver Spring, Maryland
I’m okay with the fact that the candidate I wanted lost the election. Our family was upset by the outcome, but I approached this like a civics lesson for my children: We told them that this is a democracy, and the next best thing to winning an election is using the democratic process to speak up. It is all of our responsibility to use the tools we have to engage in our democracy.
Social media are among the most effective tools I have to speak out. I have a blog and as a professor I publish academic writings, but Twitter gives me the broadest audience most immediately. For example, I’m delighted when I write a blog post that is read by a few thousand people. But because of my audience on Twitter, I can reach as many as 100,000 people with one of my tweets replying to the president. It’s true that there are some people who use the reply threads on Twitter just to trade insults, which may not be the most productive sort of conversation. But the reply threads also allow you to see a range of opinions from people who agree and disagree. Since I’m not a political commentator by profession, and I’m a parent, Twitter is the only way I can connect with that many people with just a few minutes of time every day (it helps that the president and I seem to wake up at the same time every morning so I’m one of the earlier people to reply).
Being blocked by Trump diminished my ability to respond and engage in the political process. There has been measurable impact on my ability to be heard. Yes, I can still say what I want to say, but not to those I want to speak to, when I want to say it, or in the way that means the most to me. It’s disempowering to be prohibited from speaking. And I’m troubled that the president can create a space on Twitter -- where there are millions of people -- that he can manipulate to give the impression that more agree with him than actually do.
Eugene Gu, physician-scientist, Redwood City, California
I wasn't always interested in politics. I’m a physician—my life is devoted to healing you whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, or anyone else. I joined the lawsuit because I feel strongly that my First Amendment rights were violated.
I became involved on Twitter because the type of research I was working on to cure congenital diseases in infants became a political matter, with Congress debating whether or not it should go forward. That is when I learned the value and importance of free speech. More than anywhere else on social media, Twitter is a place where you can speak out -- including about science, health care, and human rights. I’ve been able to connect with other people engaged in research similar to mine and build a sense of camaraderie.
My Twitter following is relatively small, but because my tweets show up in the comment threads under the president’s tweets and can be seen by his millions of followers, my replies could gain traction. I found that I was able to be heard by many people and that my voice mattered even if I wasn't a celebrity or politician. It felt like a national forum or city council meeting where the content of your speech mattered more than who you were.
Then President Trump blocked me. It felt like I was being silenced and suppressed. Now I have extremely limited access to the public forum where I once could be heard. I feel cut off and as though I’m being treated like an outsider in my own country. President Trump is my president: He is supposed to care about the views of all Americans, even those who disagree with him.
Holly Figueroa, songwriter and organizer, Seattle, Washington
When I saw President Trump recently say on the news that Twitter is his way of communicating with the American people, it felt like a punch in the gut. What about me, I thought. I’m one of the American people. It’s hard not to take being blocked by the president personally. I may not be crazy about President Trump, but he is my president, and I want to know what he is saying.
Since I’ve been blocked, I’ve been active in communicating with other people who have also been blocked by the president. It’s uncomfortable and even scary as an individual to be singled out by someone in such a powerful office. But it’s also scary to think about the president blocking hundreds, if not thousands, of other people as well. I want to know how many other critics have been blocked. I’m afraid of Americans not knowing how much dissent or protest is being erased from the public sphere.
People have said to me, “just get another account.” But I don’t want to get a hidden account to lurk on Twitter. I’m on Twitter as myself -- a person that others have come to know, whether it’s through the music I’ve worked on or my political commentary. If I protest something that the president says or does, I want to do it under my own name, not hiding in the shadows.
Nicholas Pappas, comedy writer, New York City, New York
I’ve never been more scared for our constitutional rights than I am today. I joined this lawsuit because it’s not just me whose voice has been stifled. Dissent as a whole is under threat.
On Twitter, whenever you open up a tweet, you can see the replies underneath -- like the comments under a news article. People naturally glance at these replies to evaluate the public response to what the president has said. Hundreds of news articles have been written based on people’s replies to the president on Twitter, and those news articles are shared even more in turn.
As a writer and a former journalist, I have a large Twitter following, so my replies to the president would rise to the top under his tweets. Replies like mine alerted people -- other elected officials, journalists, those in foreign countries, and everyday Americans -- that people often strongly disagree with the president’s policies. But now that President Trump has been blocking people with popular accounts who criticize him, when you click on one of his tweets, the responses below are mostly from his supporters. If I didn’t know better, I might assume most American people are behind his actions.
I could start a different account to tweet at President Trump, but without the followers under my own account I wouldn’t be heard -- at least not by anywhere near as many people. It feels like I’ve been kicked out of a place where I once had a voice, or that I was blacklisted for criticizing the president and now fewer people can hear me. As an American, that’s scary.
Joseph Papp, author and former cyclist, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
As a registered Republican for 10 years, I didn’t join this lawsuit for political reasons nor did I try to troll or provoke the president. I wanted to partake in the conversation. Being blocked by the President Trump might be a badge of honor for some people, but when it happened to me, I only felt a deep sense of unease. Everyone being able to see the president’s tweets feels vital to democracy.
Now I’m completely cut off from seeing President Trump’s statements in real-time. When other people retweet him, I see only a gray box. I don’t want to set up a separate account -- my Twitter account stands for my identity, demonstrating my views and reputation. Identity for me is too important to discard: I’m an athlete who years ago was involved in illegally distributing performance-enhancing drugs. I know first-hand what it’s like to have your name and credibility demolished. As an anti-doping activist today, I’ve spent years re-establishing and rehabilitating my name and reputation. If the only way to view my president’s tweets is to disassociate myself from my identity, and the only way to reply to him is not under my own name, I wouldn’t do it.
I think this lawsuit is necessary for the American people. I firmly believe the president violated the Constitution by blocking me on Twitter. But even with that conviction, being singled out has still had an impact on how I’ve engaged on Twitter since, especially with people in government. I find myself thinking twice about how I frame my comments. I even start to question myself before I retweet, like, or reply to a comment relating to the government. I don’t know if I’ll end up being blocked or cut off by a government official again.
Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, writer and legal analyst, Washington, D.C.
Being the second generation of my family born in this country, I am deeply proud to be American — and keenly aware of the principles the United States stands for. My grandfather came to the United States from Spain as an exile fleeing a fascist regime. When she came from Colombia, my grandmother marveled at the freedom of American women.
Today I write about and work to advance civil rights in our country through law in part because of the values and laws that made my grandparents’ lives here, and mine, possible. I’m grateful for our rights, and I’ve always held the office of the president in the highest respect.
It seems President Trump blocked me after I tweeted a comment about Russia’s involvement in the election that was liked and retweeted by thousands of people. Being blocked has kept me from participating in critical public conversations. Not only can I not see or reply to the president's account, I cannot see which tweets others are referring to when they quote him. I am prevented from engaging with others who are responding, learning their views, and sharing my own views. As a writer, being unable to see the president’s tweets and replies to these statements also makes it difficult to stay current and write timely analyses and responses.
The ostensibly simple act –- hitting “block” on my name -- has had a significant effect on me. I feel silenced and marginalized. And I feel a type of fear I never expected to feel in our country: That I can lose a significant right just because of something I say about the government. After that punishment, I’m constantly mindful of the potential consequences of voicing critical political views. Finally, I am deeply saddened. My grandparents came here for political freedom, something my family has always valued about this country. What I’ve experienced lately feels like something else.
Brandon Neely, police officer, Houston, Texas
After five years of defending this country’s freedoms, I’m not allowed the freedom of voicing my opinions to the president and others in response to him on Twitter.
I believe in the importance of speaking out when we see wrongdoing. In the armed forces I spoke out about the conditions at Guantanamo. It helped me, it helped other people who were there, and it helped change what was going on. Today, social media is how people put out information, especially the president. I have a verified account on Twitter, and this put my feedback on his tweets at the top of the responses displayed below the president’s tweets. If I can’t see what information my president is putting out, how can I engage in public discourse with other Americans? Why do I have to wait to hear what he says from someone else?
When I found out the president blocked me, it felt as though my opinion didn’t matter. After devoting five years of my life to serving this country, the president -- who is supposed to represent the views of all Americans -- did not care what I had to say.
Rebecca Pilar Buckwalter-Poza is a regular contributor to Pacific Standard on law and politics and is judicial affairs editor at Daily Kos.
Philip Cohen is a professor at the University of Maryland and a plaintiff in Knight Institute v. Trump.
Eugene Gu is a physician-scientist and a plaintiff in Knight Institute v. Trump.
Holly Figueroa is a songwriter and organizer and a plaintiff in Knight Institute v. Trump.
Nicholas Pappas is a comedy writer and plaintiff in Knight Institute v. Trump.
Brandon Neely is a police officer and plaintiff in Knight Institute v. Trump.