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Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Executive v. Legislative and Twitter blocking

Judge Domenico of the District of Colorado held that Rep. Broebert did not act under color and thus did not violate the First Amendment in blocking a viewer from her @laurenboebert account on January 6 (but not from her official @RepBoebert House account). According to the court, Broebert started this account before she was elected to Congress and uses this account to discuss political issues, her legislative agenda, and bills she has introduced. This case is analogous to a Tenth Circuit decision from January finding no state action in blocking people from an account started during an initial campaign and containing more campaign-related material than office-related.

The court did a few things I believe are incorrect and problematic along the way and may confound these cases going forward, even if the result is probably correct.

First, Domenico went on a brief discursive about why there might not be a cause of action, citing Ziglar v. Abbasi and noting the recent retrenchment of Bivens, although he does not resolve that issue because Boebert did not raise the issue. This is wrong. In shrinking Bivens actions for damages, the Court has never suggested that it also wished to shrink Ex Parte Young actions against federal officials. In fact, Ziglar recognized the availability of injunctive relief, despite the absence of an express cause of action authorizing injunctive relief, as a special factor counseling against recognizing the Bivens claim. He rejects the plaintiff's assumption that the court's equitable powers provide the cause of action because "equity follows the law." But that ignores SCOTUS' statement in Armstrong: "The ability to sue to enjoin unconstitutional actions by state and federal officers is the creation of courts of equity, and reflects a long history of judicial review of illegal executive action, tracing back to England." Not sure what Domenico is aiming at, but that is a pretty clear statement that equitable actions are not the same as Bivens actions and do not require an express right of action.

Second, Domenico adopts a very cribbed understanding of the official actions of legislators. As he puts it, "legislators legislate. Their state-created powers are to propose legislation and to voteand little else." Later he says that "Individual legislators do not have the constitutional power to either make law or abridge speech, and thus their individual actions are not within the First Amendment’s coverage." But legislators do a lot more as part of their jobs. One thing they do is communicate with their constituents. If an individual legislator held a press conference, gave a speech, or convened a constituent town hall and excluded certain people from the event because of their viewpoints, that legislator acts under color and could be subject to a First Amendment suit. I have never heard anyone question this. This is the social-media version of that. It may be, as the court later says, that it is impossible to distinguish a legislator's statement as legislator from her statements as candidate for reelection. But that is different from saying a legislator's public statements are never under color of law.

It seems to me Domenico conflates legislative functions (proposing and voting on legislation) and official functions performed by a legislator, such as public communications. The latter are covered by legislative, or Speech-or-Debate, immunity, while the former are not. But the under-color question is supposed to be whether the defendant's conduct was made possible by his public position and authority. Legislators can do a lot more than purely legislative functions as a result of their office, some of which could violate the First Amendment. Domenico tries to reframe the question as authority to act on behalf of the state, but that has never been the standard. Domenico relies on West v. Atkins, which was about when private individuals are under color, a different inquiry.

Third, Domenico argues that the First Amendment says "Congress" shall make no law, which means "Congress, not its individual members, commands the federal government, and it is that body that the First Amendment sought to constrain." But the First Amendment has not been limited to formal legislative enactments. This would mean that the First Amendment does not "constrain" an executive officer (e.g., an FBI agent) from arresting someone because he did not like the person's speech or because of his religious views. I presume Domenico did not mean to say that.

Fourth, Domenico's approach draws a sharp line between legislative and executive officials. Because the executive's actions have practical legal effects that an individual legislator's actions do not, the former act under color in running their Twitter feeds in ways the latter do not. The factors that governed in Trump and Davison (content, appearance to the public, ways of operating the feed) are irrelevant to legislators. Again, that works if the standard is whether an official's actions "bind" the government as policy; it does not work if the question is (as it should be) whether the actions are "made possible" by the official position, because legislators do a lot of things made possible by their positions.

Again, I am not sure Domenico did not reach the correct result, because the Davison/Trump factors make this look like a private rather than official feed. But his analysis misses the mark in many ways that would have bad and far-reaching effects on the First Amendment and constitutional litigation.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 29, 2021 at 06:58 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink

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