Knight Institute to Sen. John Cornyn: Don’t Block People on Twitter

The organization prevailed in a legal battle against President Donald Trump over the same issue

Heath Mayo, a Texas voter and former intern to Cornyn, was blocked John Cornyn/Twitter

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sent a letter to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) Wednesday urging him to stop blocking Twitter users from his @JohnCornyn account due to differing viewpoints.

Cornyn’s office had not responded to a request for comment at the time of this post.

The letter stops short of threatening legal action, but it does note that the courts have held in favor of their argument—that public officials cannot block people from their social media accounts—including its case involving President Donald Trump.

“We are hoping that litigation isn’t necessary, but of course we would consider that if the letter is not effective,” Knight Institute senior staff attorney Katie Fallow said in an interview with Adweek.

The Knight Institute’s letter highlighted the case of Heath Mayo, a Texas voter and former intern for Cornyn.

Cornyn sent a tweet March 14 with a photo of Corona beer at an empty restaurant and the caption, “Be smart; don’t panic. We will get us through this #coronavirus.”

Mayo retweeted it the following day, saying, “I just don’t understand the thought process that gets a senior-ranking senator to say, ‘You know what? I think I’ll post this picture of a Corona beer in an empty restaurant where I’m dining, in direct disregard of CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and government guidance—a government for which I’m a spokesman.”

On April 11, Mayo tweeted that he had been blocked by Cornyn.

UPDATED 5 p.m. ET May 13: Mayo tweeted Wednesday afternoon that he had been unblocked by Cornyn’s account, and CNN contributor and political columnist Amanda Carpenter said in a reply to Mayo’s tweet that she was unblocked, as well.

The Knight Institute said in its letter that Mayo was not the only Twitter user to be blocked by Cornyn or his staff. On April 30, Austin resident Todd Beardsley sued Cornyn for blocking him. “I honestly and truly have no idea why Sen. Cornyn blocked me,” Beardsley told the Austin American-Statesman. One day after filing suit, the senator reversed course and unblocked him.

Fallow said, “Sen. Cornyn has used his Twitter account to communicate with the public about official government business, including about the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As multiple courts have held, public officials can’t lawfully block people from their social media accounts simply because they don’t like what they’ve posted. These accounts are public forums, and the First Amendment bars government officials from excluding people from them based solely on viewpoint.”

The Knight Institute filed a lawsuit in July 2017 against President Donald Trump on behalf of seven individuals who were blocked from his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in May 2018 that Trump’s blocking of Twitter users with differing political viewpoints was a violation of the First Amendment, and Trump’s appeal of that ruling was overturned last July by a panel of three judges on the Second Circuit.

Trump’s request for an en banc review was denied in March.

The plaintiffs in the case, plus dozens of others that the Knight Institute sent to the Justice Department, have been unblocked by the president, but many others remain blocked for a variety of reasons. The president, for one, has refused to unblock those he blocked before taking office, Fallow said. The Knight Institute says that the Department of Justice has until late August to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.
@ScottNover Scott Nover is a platforms reporter at Adweek, covering social media companies and their influence.