Trump was basically Obama’s reply guy throughout the 2010s, so it’s only fitting that he won’t be able to take advantage of a new Twitter feature intended to curb his own comment trolls…legally, at least.
Twitter is testing an ability that lets users limit who can reply to their tweets. If you’re part of the test, you’ll be able to determine whether everyone can reply (the norm and current default), if only people that you follow can reply, or if only people you tag in a tweet can reply. If you don’t tag anyone and go with that last option, you’re basically turning off all replies, period.
Reactions to the new feature have been mixed. Some people are praising it as a way to stop potential harassers from replying. Others are joking about the feature’s elitism. And of course, still more have turned the “no replies” tweet into a meme already.
One important take points out the constitutional and legal ramifications of the feature for public officials. The ACLU has issued a statement that public officials need to be careful about how they use the reply-limiting features, lest they violate the First Amendment.
As a general matter, Twitter’s investment in user controls is a good thing. But public officials would be violating the First Amendment if they were to use this tool to block speakers on any accounts they’ve opened up for public conversation in their roles as government actors. Nor should public officials use this tool to decide who can, or can’t, reply to accounts they have opened up for requests for government assistance, which may be on the rise due to COVID-19.
For the past several years, courts have been grappling with whether a public figure blocking someone on Twitter constitutes a violation of their first amendment rights. Most notably, the Court of Appeals upheld a ruling in a lawsuit brought against President Trump, saying that he was not allowed to block people after they had offended or disagreed with him, because it impinged on their freedom to engage in political speech.
The ACLU apparently sees the “no replies” feature as an extension of the idea of blocking because it limits speech in what has effectively become a digital public square. So, the new test features might be valuable, but people in the public eye are going to have to be careful about how they use them.