New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded to First Amendment scholars at Columbia University who accused her of violating others’ right to free speech by blocking them on Twitter. It turns out that her patience for these accusations and the number of people she has blocked on the social media platform have something in common: there’s not a lot of either.
Of the more than 5.3 million Twitter followers Ocasio-Cortez has to her account, only 20 users have been blocked for what the first-year representative calls “ongoing harassment.” She also made it clear that none of the blocked users were her constituents, which addresses two of the main concerns lodged by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on Thursday. They argued that everyone from the biggest AOC fans to the “not all men” burden bearers and the armchair policy experts have a right to be in her mentions on the basis of her Twitter account acting as a public forum and an extension of her office. They contended that blocking them was a form of deterring debate and expression of a spectrum of opinions.
They did, however, make one exception: online harassment and abuse. “We recognize that you may wish to block users for reasons that are both reasonable and constitutionally legitimate — for example, because their speech is threatening,” reads the Knight First Amendment Institute letter. “We also recognize that abuse and harassment are significant problems on social media, especially for women and minorities, and that this abuse and harassment can deter speech and political participation that are crucial to our democracy.”
Blocking people for simply saying something you don’t agree with is one thing, blocking them for threatening or violent language is another. It’s a difference Ocasio-Cortez was happy to distinguish between in her response to the organization. “People are free to speak whatever classist, racist, false, misogynistic, bigoted comments they’d like. They do not have the right to force others to endure their harassment and abuse,” she tweeted in a thread.
The First Amendment debate surrounding public Twitter accounts has become even more layered. Hate speech versus freedom of speech, spreading unfounded propaganda, and harassment have all been deliberated at length. The latest point of contention is whether a public official can block users who espouse different opinions on their public accounts and where the line between discussion and online abuse comes into play.