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Monday, April 05, 2021

SCOTUS vacates Knight Foundation, Thomas has things to say

SCOTUS GVRed Biden v. Knight Foundation (begins on p.9) with instructions to dismiss as moot under Munsingwear. No surprise, as mootness was always inevitable because Trump would someday leave office, known to happen once he lost the election, and factual once Twitter banned him. Whether plaintiffs can recover attorney's fees remains. As do questions of the effect on qualified immunity.

We also have some explanation for why this took so long--Justice Thomas wrote a lengthy (solo) concurrence, emphasizing that the real power over internet spaces is private rather than governmental and offering arguments for why internet platforms might be regulable as common carriers or places of public accommodation. He also suggests that lower courts have misconstrued § 230 to give immunity to "bad-faith removal of third-party content," whatever that means. And he carries water for the grievance of Trump being banned from Twitter (and his 89 million followers), demonstrating the "stark" disparity between Twitter's control and Trump's control.

Thomas recognizes that the First Amendment limits government power to control speech in a private space that it rents or uses.

Whether governmental use of private space implicates the First Amendment often depends on the government’s control over that space. For example, a government agency that leases a conference room in a hotel to hold a public hearing about a proposed regulation cannot kick participants out of the hotel simply because they express concerns about the new regulation. See Southeastern Promotions, Ltd. v. Conrad, 420 U. S. 546, 547, 555 (1975). But government officials who informally gather with constituents in a hotel bar can ask the hotel to remove a pesky patron who elbows into the gathering to loudly voice his views. The difference is that the government controls the space in the first scenario, the hotel, in the latter.

I think this misses the mark in two respects. First, Trump could have asked the "pesky patrons"--assuming they were violating Twitter's terms of service--be removed by Twitter. Second, a government official's Twitter feed is more than an informal gathering with constituents and Thomas' framing minimizes the communicative power of Twitter. It seems more akin to a Town Hall meeting or a speech--the official speaks to the public and the public can hear and respond. If that is not a full-on public hearing on a proposed regulation (which limits the effect to legislative bodies), it is more than people who happen to be public officials hanging out in a bar.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 5, 2021 at 11:46 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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