Columbia institute sues Trump for blocking critics on Twitter

Toni Airaksinen
New York Campus Correspondent

  • A newly-founded institute at Columbia University has sued the Trump administration on behalf of seven critics whom he blocked on Twitter.
  • The Knight Institute, backed with $60 million in funding from the elite university, argues that since Trump uses his Twitter to engage with the public, his account is therefore a "public forum" and should be treated as such under federal law.
  • Columbia University's $60 million Knight Institute is suing the Trump administration.

    The Columbia University Knight Institute, a First Amendment advocacy organization, has sued the Trump administration for blocking his critics on Twitter.

    The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleges that since President Trump’s Twitter account is a “public forum,” blocking citizens from having access to it is “unconstitutional.”

    “Would anyone defend those exclusions on the ground that the meetings were held on private property?”   

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    The suit, filed on behalf of seven individuals whom Trump has blocked, seeks “immediate injunction requiring [Trump] to unblock” those individuals, to refrain from blocking anyone else “on the basis of viewpoint,” and provide compensation for attorney’s fees.

    Although Twitter is a private entity, the lawsuit alleges that because Trump uses the platform to engage with the public, his account is therefore a “public forum” and should be treated as such under federal law.

    “Imagine that your county held town hall meetings at a private community center and excluded people who belonged to a particular political party,” Ujala Sehgal, the communications director of the Knight Institute, told Campus Reform. “Would anyone defend those exclusions on the ground that the meetings were held on private property?”

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    Additionally, Sehgal argued that freedom of association, also outlined in the First Amendment, does not apply to President Trump’s Twitter account.

    “While the president certainly has First Amendment rights, the strength of those rights turns on whether he is speaking in a private capacity or an official one,” she elaborated, claiming that certain rights are terminated because his account is a public one, not a personal one.

    Notably, the Knight Foundation, founded last year with $60 million from Columbia University, has focused almost exclusively on litigation against the Trump administration.

    In fact, its first lawsuit, filed in March, sued the Trump administration after it failed to respond to a FOIA request within a 10-day window.

    Since then, the Institute has been involved in numerous other lawsuits against the Trump administration, including one demanding the release of White House visitor logs, and another demanding more transparency from the Department of Justice.

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    Ujala, though, told Campus Reform that the Knight Institute is a “nonpartisan organization,” and further claimed that since the First Amendment “applies to the government, not private actors,” it is reasonable that most of their litigation would be filed against the government.

    A separate inquiry with the Knight Foundation confirmed that while it was co-founded by Columbia and is hosted on campus, it offers no programming for students, will host no events for students this year, and does nothing to educate students about the First Amendment.

    UPDATE: Knight Institute Communications Director Ujala Sehgal provided the following statement to Campus Reform following publication of this article:

    "The Knight Institute has internship programs for law school and undergraduate students during the academic term as well as during the summer. Students interested in applying for internships are encouraged to view open postings on the Institute's website at knightcolumbia.org. Currently, the Institute's executive director is teaching at the law school, and the Institute both sponsors and participates in public events on campus." 

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    Toni Airaksinen

    Toni Airaksinen

    New York Campus Correspondent
    Toni Airaksinen is a New York Campus Correspondent, where she reports on free speech issues and social justice research. She is a senior at Barnard College, majoring in Urban Studies and Environmental Science. She is also a columnist for PJ Media, and formerly held a post with USA TODAY College, The Columbia Spectator, and Quillette.
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