ALBANY, N.Y., Aug. 18, 2022 — The New York State Senate wants to hear from “each and every citizen” as it considers hundreds of bills each year. But if you’re a New Yorker who criticizes the Senate on Twitter, you may find your account blocked and your tweet hidden.
Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression called on the New York State Senate to stop blocking Twitter critics and hiding their tweets. FIRE defends the speech rights of all Americans and, here, represents William Silver, who was among many blocked after criticizing new gun control legislation.
“The First Amendment protects the pen, the press, and the pixel,” said FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh. “When state actors go online, the First Amendment follows.”
Twitter users — including the staff operating the New York State Senate account — can hide replies to their threads and block people who replied, preventing them from seeing the account’s future tweets or interacting further. The New York State Senate’s official Twitter account frequently takes advantage of this feature, blocking or hiding criticism of legislation and legislators.
The Senate’s actions are unconstitutional. Courts across the country have recognized that when a government actor invites public comments on social media, the government actor’s regulation of that online speech is restrained by the First Amendment. In one notable case, a court found then-President Donald Trump’s practice of blocking critics on Twitter violated the First Amendment.
“The New York State Senate cannot hide tweets or block users based on their viewpoints,” said Steinbaugh. “In culling tweets and blocking users based on viewpoint, the New York State Senate undermines its own role in facilitating the democratic process and violates the Constitution.”
In June, the United States Supreme Court struck down a New York statute requiring a license to carry a firearm outside of the home. In response, the state legislature met in an extraordinary session to consider new gun control legislation — which it ultimately adopted.
Upset New Yorkers took to Twitter to express their frustration with the legislation, and the New York State Senate hid almost 90 tweets on the subject and blocked a multitude of users.
Today, FIRE sent a letter to the New York State Senate on behalf of Silver, who responded to a Senate tweet about the extraordinary session with a tweet of his own, repeating two words from the Second Amendment: “Shall not.” His account was then blocked and his tweet hidden.
“While the Senate was considering legislation on an expedited basis, I thought it was important to voice my opinion while I had the opportunity,” said Silver. “It’s concerning that the Senate would try to prevent me from doing that. We can’t expect politicians to agree with us on every issue, but they also can’t subvert the democratic process by hiding constituents’ publicly voiced concerns.”
FIRE’s letter calls on the New York State Senate to unblock all users, unhide any tweets or Facebook comments, and agree not to block users or hide comments going forward. The letter also includes a public records request for information about who and what the New York State Senate has blocked, hidden, or filtered on its social media sites. (For more on how public institutions use blocking and filtering functions, see FIRE’s 2020 report.)
“Legislatures should seek out the opinions of their constituents, not disappear them,” said FIRE attorney Harrison Rosenthal. “Our democracy depends on the ability of the public to share their views, but the New York State Senate is suppressing the views they don’t like.”
FIRE has given the Senate until Sept. 1 to respond to the letter.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org