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Explainer: What does the Poway School Board case in the Supreme Court mean?

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a case from Poway that could change how political discourse is regulated on social media. KPBS North County Reporter Alexander Nguyen talks to two legal experts to explain what’s at stake.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set this fall to hear a case from Poway that could change how political discourse is regulated on social media.

In 2017, two Poway Unified School District Board of Education members, Michelle O'Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane, blocked comments on their social media pages from two parents in the district.

Those parents, Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, sued, saying the blocking violated their First Amendment rights. A San Diego judge ruled in their favor, and last July, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.


But a month earlier, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals came to a different conclusion on a similar case. In that case, the court ruled that James R. Freed, a city manager in Port Huron, Michigan, did not violate a constituent’s freedom of speech when he blocked Kevin Lindke from his social media page.

“The issue, in this case, is whether a public official's social media page is an extension of the official's public office or an extension of the official's personal life,” legal analyst Dan Eaton said.

He said the case matters because if public officials can block constituents whom they find annoying, then it means they’re insulating themselves from negative feedback.

“This is a very important case, because right now we've got a Wild West with respect to social media, in the sense that the rules aren't clearly established," he said. "The Supreme Court is about to take a step in defining some of the rules that apply when a public official has a social media page.”

The Supreme Court is stepping in because two similar cases had different outcomes. The First Amendment shouldn't be interpreted one way in one court and another way in another court, Eaton said.


While the cases were similar, there were differences as well. In the Poway case, the Facebook pages were campaign pages that O'Connor-Ratcliff and Zane continued to use to interact with the public. In the Michigan case, Freed's page had more personal elements.

The 9th Circuit's ruling did take into account that some public officials' social media accounts are personal and not "every social media account created by public officials is subject to constitutional scrutiny or that, having created a public forum online, public officials are powerless to manage public interaction with their profiles."

This case is important for both public officials and their constituents as it will clarify the rights of the public to engage and criticize their elected representatives, said Matthew Halgren, a First Amendment lawyer at Sheppard Mullin.

"An issue that we anticipate will be resolved in this case is when these public Facebook pages are public fora and when they aren't,” he said.

If the Supreme Court decides that public officials' social media pages are public forums, then the next question for the court to answer is what kinds of restrictions can be placed on them, Halgren said.

"Can users be blocked? Can their comments be deleted? Can the comments be hidden?" he said. "So these are all issues that are going to be played out in the courts over the coming years.”

Ultimately, Eaton thinks the court will develop a test to determine when a public official's social media page is a public forum and when it's a personal page.

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