A former Ithacan blocked by Donald Trump’s Twitter account this summer is claiming in federal court that the president and his aides violated his and other blocked users’ First Amendment rights.
Philip N. Cohen is a sociology professor at the University of Maryland who grew up in Ithaca and is the child of a Cornell math professor and biology researcher. And on June 6, he joined a relatively exclusively club of people blocked by @realDonaldTrump, the president’s personal Twitter, which more than 40 million users follow.
“I was shocked,” Cohen said in an interview, recalling the moment he could no longer access the president’s Twitter feed from his account.
Cohen was blocked about 15 minutes after tweeting an image of Trump with the words: “Corrupt Incompetent Authoritarian. And then there are the policies. RESIST.”
Now, Cohen is one of several people blocked by the president who, along with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, are suing Donald Trump and several members of his staff for violating their rights.
The Knight Institute said in its July complaint that blocking the plaintiffs violates their First Amendment rights because it has restricted them, because of their political beliefs, from participating in a public forum, accessing official statements and petitioning the government for redress of grievances.
Cohen and the other plaintiffs are suing Trump; Hope Hicks, the White House communications director; Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary; and Daniel Scavino, White House director of social media and assistant to the president, in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and are suing the defendants in their official capacities only.
Department of Justice attorneys, representing the defendants, conceded in a letter to the court on Friday that Trump blocked Cohen and the others “from the Twitter account that he has personally used for more than eight years, long before he became president.”
“The decisions he makes in managing that account, like many of the personal decisions he makes as president, are not an exercise of power conferred on him by federal law,” the lawyers argued. “As such, they are not state action and not subject to First Amendment scrutiny.”
Cohen, who lived in Ithaca for about 15 years as a child and teenager, wrote for the Ithaca Times in the 1980s and worked at both WHCU and WVBR, said it is “surreal” that Trump is personally blocking people “with his own fat little thumbs.”
Cohen’s verified Twitter account, @familyunequal, has more than 10,000 followers, and he used to quickly reply to Trump’s tweets so that more people would see his responses, which often appeared immediately below the president’s postings.
“Nothing I’ve been able to do since gets as many viewers,” he said in the interview on Tuesday.
When Cohen’s friends comment on a Tweet from @realDonaldTrump, he can no longer see the president’s posting — only “Tweet not available.” He can get around the block by logging into a separate Twitter account, which the president has not blocked, but Cohen cannot respond to the president’s tweets from his primary account.
“I recognize I don’t have to climb Mount Everest to get around the [president’s] block, but it is inconvenient and I think [Trump and his staff are] making it a hassle for me because of my political views,” Cohen said.
All of the people who followed Cohen because they wanted to see his postings regarding the president and politics, he said, can no longer see Cohen’s responses to the president. “That’s just suppressing political speech, basically,” he said.
The Knight Institute lawyers warned Cohen that publicly joining its lawsuit may lead to online harassment from people opposed to the lawsuit, and Cohen said he has received a few “slightly-threatening emails” and some nasty tweets, including some that are anti-Semitic, but nothing seriously concerning.
“Personally, it’s just nice to feel like I’m involved in something,” he said, laughing. “It’s the modern version of being involved, I guess. Like, I do it at my desk — alone.”
The Justice Department filed a motion for summary judgement on Friday arguing that @realDonaldTrump is not a public forum and, instead, a private platform managed by a private company, Twitter. The plaintiffs’ response is due by Nov. 3.
The Knight Institute has asked the court to declare Trump’s blocking of users unconstitutional, compel him to unblock the plaintiffs and prohibit him from blocking anyone based on their beliefs.
“It’s totally uncharted waters,” Cohen said. “I’m confident in our lawyers, but I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
Cohen likened the group of Twitter users suing Trump to characters on “Gilligan’s Island,” noting that the plaintiffs include a surgeon, a police officer, a former professional cyclist, a comic and more, all of whom are active on the social media platform.
Although Cohen said he has not met any of the other plaintiffs, some have spoken via Skype since joining the suit. And, unsurprisingly, they also keep tabs on each other’s internet activity.
“Now, we all follow each other on Twitter,” Cohen said.