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Let's say an elected official have a Twitter account.

And let's say this elected official is using twitter to communicate information to the public relevant to the elected position.

And let's say this elected official decides to block users.

This means he is in that case actively withholding information from selected individuals.

It that censoring?

Of course there is a big loophole here if the elected officials private Twitter account is not used in any way to tweet information about the government office he holds. But the minute he tweets about his work as the position he holds after he entered the office things would change.

I am asking because there was a case in Sweden where a government organisation (just one of the many organisations within the government) had a Twitter account and for some reason blocked a user. Then, without even going to court, a judge said and I am paraphrasing: "You may not block users on a medium you are communication official information with because that is censoring." The kicker in that case was because Twitter was used to give information from the government and thus they could not block people and they have to unblock everyone. Would the same thing apply in the USA?

Edit:

1.5 years later: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-05-23/trump-told-by-judge-not-to-block-users-from-his-twitter-feed

2.5 years later: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/09/us/politics/trump-twitter-first-amendment.html

  • "Censoring" is certainly an odd label to put on this behavior. Normally it denotes an authority prohibiting or suppressing an expression by someone else. – phoog Dec 7 '16 at 14:22
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    @phoog I think blocking also prevents the blocked account from retweeting you, which could be interpreted as a censorship method. – Philipp Dec 7 '16 at 15:17
  • @Philipp That makes a bit more sense. Thank you for the clarification. – phoog Dec 7 '16 at 15:18
  • @phoog Not really. They're not actively preventing them from saying something. A user can easily still parrot back information they've read, and a user can easily still view what they wrote. Honestly that Swedish judge sounds like they're way overstepping their boundaries, or simply don't fully understand how Twitter even works. It's highly unlikely anything similar would ever be upheld in the US, but we can't actually know until someone takes it to court, which I doubt anyone would do. – animuson Dec 7 '16 at 16:03
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In general, the U.S. understanding of "censorship" occurs when the government decides what information party A can communicate to some other party B. For example, if Alice wants to publish a book, but the government refuses to let her do so, that is a kind of censorship. If Bob wants to tell his friend, "The government made me surrender the access log to my website," but the government places a gag order on him, that is a kind of censorship as well. (I will place discussion of what kind of censorship are legally permissible outside the scope of this answer.)

When User A blocks User B on Twitter, then User B can no longer see tweets from User A (and vice versa). This does not appear to be censorship, as it only concerns communication directly between the blocking and blocked party. In my definition above, there must be three parties: two communicating parties, and the government who interferes with their communication. If an official government channel were to block some user, that does not appear to be censorship of that user, because the user has in no way had their freedom of speech limited.

Suppose, for example, a government agency sent out a piece of mail to every single citizen of the U.S., except Bob. For whatever reason, this agency decided Bob should not get this letter. They do not stop Bob from reading someone else's copy of the letter, or from discussing the letter (or discussing anything else, for that matter) with other people. This simply doesn't seem to fit any reasonable definition of censorship I'm aware of.

The particular reason why they chose not to send Bob the letter might be illegally discriminatory (e.g., the letter would have been helpful to Bob, but they chose not to send it to him purely because of his race/religion/etc.), but even this would not categorize the block on Bob as censorship.

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    @K-C I agree that bears addressing in this answer. It's not clear to me how different "can't submit a complaint to the government" (which sounds like censorship) is from "the government categorically throws all messages from Bob in the garbage immediately upon receipt" (which does not sound like censorship; Bob is free to say what he likes and the government is free to listen to whomever they like, regardless of whether this is good policy decision). Regardless, accepting protest but requiring it to be submitted external to Twitter does not seem like censorship, which I should mention here. – apsillers Dec 7 '16 at 17:42
  • Withholding information from citizens is not censoring in your definition then? – Lord Wolfenstein Dec 7 '16 at 20:48
  • @Wolfenstein I'd say that generally, no, when the government chooses not to share information with some or all citizens (but does not stop other people from sharing that same information), that does not qualify as censorship. The government selectively chooses to share information with people all the time. If a police department puts out a notice to the citizens of a particular area that there's going to be a flood, is that censorship of every person outside the area who didn't get the notice? – apsillers Dec 7 '16 at 23:41
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    @Wolfenstein In short, I understand "censorship" to apply when a citizen is limited by the government in their ability to send speech to someone else. When the government (or anyone) freely chooses not to offer information to someone, that doesn't satisfy my understanding of censorship, because no one anywhere is being stopped from doing anything. – apsillers Dec 7 '16 at 23:47
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    @LordWolfenstein It would seem so. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classified_information – JAB May 28 '18 at 20:49

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