Tag Archives: twitter

We won our First Amendment lawsuit against President Trump

unblocked

Federal judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled yesterday that the president is violating our First Amendment rights when he blocked me and six other plaintiffs for disagreeing with him on Twitter. The details and decision are available here. Congratulations and deep appreciation to the legal team at the Knight First Amendment Institute, especially Katie Fallow, Jameel Jaffer, Alex Abdo, and Carrie DeCell (sorry for those I’m missing).

I described my participation in the suit and my tweets last year here, and the oral arguments in March here.

Judge Buchwald’s introduction to the decision is great:

This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, “block” a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed, and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States. The answer to both questions is no.

She went on to issue declaratory relief, meaning she told the president he’s breaking the law, rather than injunctive relief (an order to act), writing:

It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177 (1803), and we have held that the President’s blocking of the individual plaintiffs is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Because no government official is above the law and because all government officials are presumed to follow the law once the judiciary has said what the law is, we must assume that the President and [social media director Dan] Scavino will remedy the blocking we have held to be unconstitutional.

That remains to be seen, of course (I’m still blocked at this writing).

Here are a couple of snippets of analysis.

From Wired:

“In an age when we’re seeing so many norms broken by government regarding free speech, this is an important and right decision,” says [Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland]. “It sends a message that we’re not going to destroy free speech norms.”

[David Greene, a senior staff attorney and civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation] says he hopes the ruling warns other elected officials who are blocking constituents on social media to stop. “We routinely get a ton of people complaining to us about similar practices,” he says. “I hope they take it as a message that you have to stop doing this.”

From the Mercury News:

“The First Amendment prohibits government officials from suppressing speech on the basis of viewpoint,” said Katie Fallow, senior staff attorney at the institute, in a statement Wednesday. “The court’s application of that principle here should guide all of the public officials who are communicating with their constituents through social media.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law at UC Berkeley, agrees.

“The judge followed clear law: A government official cannot give selective access of this sort,” Chereminsky said.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Knight staff attorney Carrie DeCell said the organization was pleased with the decision, but expects the White House to appeal. “Twitter is a new communications platform, but First Amendment principles are foundations,” DeCell said. “Public discourse is increasingly taking place online.”

DeCell said the case could have implications for all public officials using social media — not just Trump’s account. “The reasoning in the court decisions, we think, should inform public officials’ activities on our social media pages throughout the country,” she said.

My co-plaintiffs have also written on the decision. See Rebecca Pilar Buckwalter Poza in Daily Kos:

Public officials are relying on social media more and more to communicate to constituents. As that shift accelerates, it’s imperative that courts recognize that the First Amendment protects against viewpoint discrimination in digital public forums like the @realdonaldtrump account just as it does in more traditional town halls. An official’s Twitter account is often the central forum for direct political debate with and among constituents, a tenet of democracy.

and Holly Figueroa O’Reilly in the Guardian:

Twitter is as public a forum as a town hall meeting. By blocking people who disagree with him, he’s not only blocking our right to petition our government and access important information, but he distorts that public forum by purging critical voices. It’s like a senator throwing someone out of a town hall because they held up a “disagree” sign.

The New York Times also did a piece on other people Trump blocked (the public doesn’t know how many such people there are), one of whom called the decision “incredibly vindicating.”

I agree. The decision is a breath of democracy fresh air.

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How I engaged my way to excellent research success and you can too

kid on string phone in front of computer screen

Kid photo CC from MB Photography; collage by pnc.

Too often sociologists think of social media, or online communications generally, primarily as a way of broadcasting their ideas and building their audience, instead of as a way of deepening their engagement with different people and perspectives. You see this when academics start a twitter account right when their book is coming out. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s very limited. A crucial part of being a public scholar, public intellectual, or a public sociologist, etc., is reading, listening, and learning through engagement, and digital communication can enhance the metabolism of that process. Especially important is the chance to learn from people you don’t normally interact with. For all the complaints about social media bubbles, some true, social media also offers huge efficiencies for meeting and learning from new people.

As I’m writing an essay about this, I thought of my work on divorce as an example. So here’s that thread, condensed.

A divorce story

In 2008 I was teaching an undergraduate Family Sociology course at the University of North Carolina, and included a section on divorce based on other people’s research. I was also developing a proposal for my own textbook, which at the time framed family structures and events, including divorce, as consequences and causes of inequality. I was reading research about divorce along with many other family issues that were outside of my formal training and experience (the closest I had come to a family demography or family sociology course was a seminar on Gender, Work & Family in grad school).

Then in 2009, I wrote a post on my pretty new blog criticizing something bad the Brad Wilcox had written about divorce. I was trying to be newsy and current, and he was claiming that the recession was lowering divorce rates because hard times pulled people together. We didn’t yet know what would happen in the recession. (In the comments, Louise Roth suggested it would take time for divorces “caused” by the recession to show up, which turned out to be true.)

I kept on that path for a while, criticizing Wilcox again for similar work in 2011. By then — prompted by the combination of my reading, the blog debates, and the news coverage around families and the recession — I was working on a paper on divorce using the American Community Survey. I presented it at a demography meeting in the summer of 2011, then revised and presented it at the Population Association of America the following spring. I blogged about this a couple more times as I worked on it, using data on state variation, and Google searches, each time getting feedback from readers.

A version of the paper was rejected by Demography in the summer of 2011 (which generated useful reviews). Although now discredited as not peer-review-publishable (which no one knew), my commentary on divorce and the recession was nevertheless featured in an NPR story by Shankar Vedantam. Further inspired, I sent a new version of the paper (with new data) to Demographic Research, which also rejected it. I presented on the work a couple of times in 2012, getting feedback each time. By August 2012, with the paper still not “published,” I was quoted describing my “divorce/recession lull-rebound hypothesis” in New York magazine.

The news media pieces were not simply my work appearing in the news, in a one-directional manner, or me commenting on other people’s research, but rather me bringing data and informed commentary to stories the reporters were already working on. Their work influenced my work. And all along that news coverage was generating on- and offline conversations, as I found and shared work by other people working on these topics (like the National Center for Marriage and Family Research, and the Pew Research Center). Looking back over my tweets about divorce, I see that I covered divorce and religion, disabilities, economics, and race/ethnic inequality, and also critiqued media coverage. (Everything also got discussed on Facebook, in a smaller semi-private circle.)

By 2014 I finally got the paper — now with even newer data — published in a paywalled peer-reviewed journal, in Population Research and Policy Review. This involved writing the dreaded phrase, “Thank you very much for the opportunity to revise this paper again.” (Submitted October 2012, revision submitted August 2013, second revision submitted January 2014, final revision April 2014.) The paper, eventually titled, “Recession and Divorce in the United States, 2008-2011,” did improve over this time as new data provided better leverage on the question, and the reviewers actually made some good suggestions.

Also in 2014 the descriptive analysis was published in my textbook. The results were reported here and there, and expanded into the general area of family-recession studies, including this piece in the Conversation. I also developed a method of projecting lifetime divorce odds (basically 50%), for which I shared the data and code, which was reported on here. Along the way I also did some work on job characteristics and divorce (data and code, working paper). When I posted technical notes, I got interesting responses from people like economist Marina Adshade, whom I’ve never met.

So that’s an engagement story that includes teaching, the blogosphere and social media, news media, peer-reviewed publishing, conference presentations and colloquium talks. I did research, but also argued about politics and inequality, and taught and learned demography. It’s not a story of how I used social media, or the news media, to get the word out about my research, although that happened, too. The work product, not just the “publications,” were all public to varying degrees, and the discussions included all manner of students, sociologists, reporters, and interested blog or Twitter readers, most of whom I didn’t know or wouldn’t have met any other way.

So I can’t draw a line dividing the “engagement” and the “research,” because they weren’t separate processes.

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Trump Twitter suit argued in federal court

pnc-holding-blocked-phone

My showing how I’m blocked by Trump on Twitter. Photo by Miesha Miller.

With updates.

Yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, lawyers from the Knight First Amendment Institute and the Department of Justice argued the lawsuit against President Trump and his staff for blocking us on Twitter, in which I’m a plaintiff.

After the two-hour hearing, just like in Law and Order, the news media met us with cameras and microphones as we came down the stairs of the courthouse, and I realized I hadn’t prepared what I would say. The first questions focused on a suggestion by the judge that Trump should just mute his critics on Trump instead of blocking us. Was this the solution? I hadn’t had time to consider it carefully, and we haven’t received any kind of settlement offer. So I said this:

Honestly I don’t know if muting is really the solution. But if all they really care about, which they say, is that he just doesn’t want to hear from us, then he would mute, but obviously he wants to suppress our speech. Obviously he doesn’t want us to be participating in the forum. He wants to look out at the world on Twitter, and see that everybody agrees with him and everybody thinks he’s great – and the fact is that’s not true – and that’s why he blocks us. He literally blocks us so that we won’t be seen to be expressing our views against him, and I think that’s outrageous and I’m glad that it’s apparently illegal.

Here are a few media links.

Columbia Journalism Review: In downtown New York, a First Amendment fight over Trump’s tweets

“I never thought he would block me. I tweeted at him all the time,” Cohen told CJR outside court. He’d just watched attorneys from the Knight First Amendment Institute tell a federal judge that in blocking Cohen because he didn’t like his tweet, the president had engaged in unconstitutional discrimination based on viewpoint. The Knight Institute, which is based at Columbia University, is representing Cohen and six other plaintiffs—a surgeon, a comic, a musician-activist, two writers, and a police officer—in a bid to qualify Trump’s Twitter as a public forum; part of a broader push to protect the First Amendment from a president who clearly does not respect it.

New York TimesJudge Floats Idea to Settle @realDonaldTrump Twitter Blocking Case

A federal judge in Manhattan had plenty of questions for lawyers representing a group of Twitter users who sued President Trump in July after he blocked them on the social media service. And she had even more for the government.

The seven users, who had been blocked by the @realDonaldTrump account after criticizing the president, were joined in the lawsuit by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Their lawyers claimed that Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed is an official government account and that blocking users from following it was a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Lawyers from the Department of Justice insisted that the Twitter feed was not, in fact, a public forum. Furthermore, they argued, no one had been meaningfully excluded from it.

Courthouse News, with the courthouse steps statements:

New York City Fox 5 news, with some followup interviews:

Agence France Press, published by Daily MailTwitter-blocked by Trump? Judge hears ‘free-speech’ case

Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, said he was summarily blocked in June 2017 after he reacted to a Trump tweet by replying with a photo of the president superimposed with the words “Corrupt Incompetent Authoritarian”.

“At first I was kind of proud, like ‘oh he cares about me,'” Cohen said.

“But then very quickly I realized that a lot fewer people were seeing my tweets and my political efficacy, my ability to speak to my fellow citizens, was impaired by that. And I think that’s not the way our government should act.”

New York: The Newest Frontier in Jurisprudence is Trump’s Twitter Feed

What’s private catharsis for the rest of us can be rightly seen as government retaliation when it’s a public official who goes on a blocking spree.

And a photo by Scott Matthews:

pnc courthouse steps 3-8-18

Photo by Scott Matthews.

These are just a few clips, mostly my scrap-booking for the day. I’ll write more later. Read all the case documents and statements, including those of the other plaintiffs, from the amazing Knight First Amendment Institute here.

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Family Inequality year-end review

It’s been another year online. Here’s my report. Feel the excitement, because it’s 2017.

This year I only wrote 54 Family Inequality blog posts, down from 77 last year; the 2010-2016 average was 130 per year. On the plus side, despite a 30% decline in posts, I only had a 7% decline in visits to the blog. Thanks!

On the third hand, while the blog had a little less than 300,000 visits this year (down from a peak of 428,000 in 2015), my tweets had more than 25 million views in 2017, according to Twitter analytics. Yikes. The peak in Twitter hits was May, with 4.8 million views. President Trump blocked me on Twitter on June 6, and I haven’t hit more than 2 million views in a month since. Who among us a year ago could have predicted our current relationship to the president of the United States (and his truth-and-soul crushing army of minions)? Our lawsuit against the president and his staff proceeds; the latest news is posted here.

2017 twitter impressions

The big blog news for the year is actually offline, the publication of my new book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible. I selected the best of the 900 blog posts on here, then revised them, updated them, and combined and organized them. The result is eight chapters of surprisingly (to me) fresh essays. I’m super happy with it, and hope you (and maybe your students) are, too. Order an exam copy or buy it from University of California Press or Amazon.

So here are the top 10 blog posts written this year:

1. Prince Charles and Princess Diana height situation explained. I’ve been covering this issue since 2010, because someone has to. It finally got the attention it deserves with this, my most blockbuster tweet ever, so I wrote a post putting it all together. Yes, they really were the same height.

sameheight

2. Demographic facts your students should know cold. This one led to lots of good discussion about teaching and learning demography in relation to other subjects, fake news, and so on.

3. More bad reporting on texting and driving, and new data. For years the New York Times has been publishing hysterical pieces about texting and driving, apparently in the service of selling Matt Richtel’s book. When David Leonhardt jumped with more nonsense in I updated my series. (Also, don’t text and drive.)

4. Sexual harassment: Et tu, Sociology? My colleague Liana Sayer and I made an offer. If you have first-hand knowledge of sexual harassment in sociology, tell us about it. We’ll collect information and report on it. Some people have contacted us. I hope more will. We’ll report back as we can.

5. Kids these days really know how to throw off a narrative on gender and families. What’s going on with young men’s gender views? Trying to tell the story as new data comes out (with code).

6. How I choose sides like it’s 1934. If I’m wrong — a false-positive read on the catastrophicness of the situation — that’s a better mistake to make than the false-negative mistake of not taking Trumpism and all this seriously enough until it’s too late.

7. Teaching Black family history in sociology, student resistance edition. A teachable moment about a teaching moment, about what happened to Black families during slavery, and how that relates to the present.

black children married parents 1880-2015

8. Race/ethnicity and slacking at work. Does new research show Black workers slack off more, and is working harder for the man really a sign of good character? Modern economics and a history lesson from Robin D. G. Kelley.

9. Marriage update: less divorce, and less sex. Married Americans are having less sex, and divorcing less. Go figure!

10. On artificially intelligent gaydar. My problems with that paper demonstrating a method of identifying sexual orientation from people’s profile pictures.

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Hitting for the cycle in Trump land

While cautious about the risks the normalizing Trump, I have nevertheless attempt to engage a little with his followers on Twitter, which is the only place I usually meet people who are willing to support him openly. One exchange yesterday struck me as iconic so I thought I’d share it.

Maybe if I’d studied conversation or text analysis more I would be less amazed at how individuals acting alone manage to travel the same discursive paths with such regularity. In this case a Trump supporter appears to spontaneously recover this very common path over a short handful of tweets:

  1. I don’t believe your facts
  2. If they are true it’s no big deal
  3. Obama was worse
  4. Nothing matters everyone is corrupt

The replies got jumbled up so I use screenshots as well as links (you can start here if you want to try to follow it on Twitter).

Ivanka Trump tweeted something about how she was going to India. Since I’m blocked by Donald but not Ivanka, if it’s convenient I sometimes do my part by making a quick response to her tweets. I said, “Your representation of the US in India epitomizes the corruption and incompetence of this administration.”

iv1

The responses by @armandolbstd and @dreadGodshand are very typical, demanding “proof” about things that are obvious to basically informed people. I made the typical mistake of thinking we could talk about common facts, using the word “literally” a lot:

iv2

OK, so then I got sucked in with what I thought was the most obvious example of corruption, leading @dreadGodshand into the whole cycle:

iv3

Interesting how the “ok, maybe it’s true but so what” thing we hear constantly strikes him as suddenly a new question. And from there on through no-big-deal to Obama-was-worse to nothing-matters:

iv4iv5

And he concluded, “I’m not hating obama for it. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s designed that way to help their parties. Who really cares?”

This reminds me of the remarkable shift in attitudes toward immoral conduct among White evangelicals, who used to think it was a very big deal if elected officials (Obama) did immoral things in private but now (Trump) shrug:

iv6

People do change. But I don’t put that much stock in changing people, and contrary to popular belief I don’t think that’s how you have to win elections. In the end defeating Trumpism politically means outvoting people who think like this, which will be the result of a combination of things: increasing turnout (one way or the other) among people who oppose him, decreasing turnout among people who support him, and changing the number of people in those two categories.

You might think this example just shows the futility of conversations like this, but maybe I’m missing some opportunity to get through. And it’s also possible that this kind of thing is demoralizing to Trump supporters, which could be good, too. So, live and learn.

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See you in court, Mr. President (about that Twitter account blocking)

On June 7, I described how President Trump’s Twitter account blocked me, and the argument for why that violates the First Amendment. I can now report that the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University has filed a lawsuit on my behalf demanding that the President unblock us. The other plaintiffs are Trump-blocked Twitter users as well: Rebecca Buckwalter, Holly Figueroa, Eugene Gu, Brandon Neely, Joseph Papp, and Nicholas Pappas (the Knight Institute is also a plaintiff). The announcement is here.

This was the tweet I sent 15 minutes before discovering I was blocked by @realDonaldTrump:

last tweet to trump

Our argument is that the President created in his Twitter stream a “designated public forum,” and he can’t legally exclude people from that based on their political views.

Here’s my part of the story, as told to the Knight communications team:

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 the 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 effect 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 they also allow you to see a range of opinions of people who agree or 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 he and I seem to wake up at the same time in the morning so I can reply right away).

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 people agree with him than actually do.

The complaint specifies:

Defendants’ blocking of Professor Cohen from the @realDonaldTrump account
prevents or impedes him from viewing the President’s tweets; from replying to these tweets; from viewing the comment threads associated with these tweets; and from participating in the comment threads.

If I complained about random citizens blocking me on Twitter, you could call me a whiner or a snowflake. But the President is not a random citizen, he is a public official — even, yes, my president — and complaining about him blocking me from his official public forum is not a personal beef, it’s a Constitutional obligation. That’s why we have a Constitution, and the court system to enforce it.

Here is the Knight Institute’s original letter demanding that he unblock his critics, sent prior to filing the suit. Attorney Alex Abdo has responded to some objections to their approach in this post. Here are the stories of the plaintiffs.

I’m happy to talk more about this, in coordination with the legal team. Wish us luck!

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Trump blocked me on Twitter and that violates the Constitution

On Twitter, users have the option of blocking other users, which prevents them from viewing the blocker’s tweets, getting notified when they tweet, and participating in the comment thread below the blocker’s tweets. Apparently, Donald Trump’s Twitter account has started blocking people who criticize him. As of yesterday, I’m one of those people.

blocked

Yesterday, the Knight First Amendment Institute, a new outfit with a hefty endowment at Columbia University, sent a letter to the President outlining why this practice violates the First Amendment and demanding that he unblock users. You can read the letter here, but the gist of it is that the President’s account operates as a “designated public forum” for the federal govnernment and that suppressing speech on the basis of people’s political beliefs in that context is illegal. (See coverage here and here, and an argument against this logic here.)

Here is Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer explaining that Trump’s tweets are “official statements by the President of the United States”:

My case illustrates how Trump created a public forum, used for official purposes, and then excluded me from participating in that forum on the basis of my political opinions.

When Trump was elected I made a case for “drawing a new line through the political landscape: for versus against Trumpism,” and oriented my political activity as a citizen accordingly. It turns out that the most efficient way I could get this message out was in the Trump threads on Twitter, by making simple memes stating opposition to Trump or mocking him. It’s not a sophisticated operation, but it didn’t take up very much of my time, and for the effort I think it had good results. (Maybe because my Twitter identity is “verified” or I have a relatively large number of followers, my tweets seemed to appear near the top of the thread if I posted them promptly.)

And I discovered that the Trump Twitter threads are a place to meet and argue with real people, strangers from other bubbles, about the most pressing issues of the day. Sure, most of the dialogue is pointless shouting and insults, which I am naturally way above, but not all of it, and for every person shouting there are many people reading along, who may be influenced by what they see. (For example, think of the young people living in Trump families described so well by Amy Harmon.)

My memes and statements were viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, according to Twitter’s analytics, often appearing right below a Trump tweet. Clearly, this is not what the President wants, but just as clearly it is one small part of how democracy works these days. Here are a few examples of images I made and posted, or comments, with links for people who aren’t blocked so you can see them, screen images to avoid that (if you follow the links you can see the discussion in the threads).

From June 4:

2

From June 3:

1

From June 6:

3

From June 2:

4

From May 31:

5

From May 28:

6

From May 18:

7

From May 16:

8

From May 13:

9

From May 7:

10

You get the idea. Maybe putting up these memes feels like carrying a sign at a protest, but in this case it’s a political forum organized by the President and limited to those he selects based on their political statements. I don’t know how this legal argument will fare in the courts, if it gets there, but in this case as in so many others, his actions are bad for democracy.

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