Supreme Court Social Media Decision Favors Arguments by Alliance Defending Freedom

by John Eshan

The legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom played a valuable auxiliary role in a pair of landmark rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in March. These rulings established guidelines for when public officials can be held legally accountable for violating free speech rights on social media and when the First Amendment protects them.

The decisions in the cases of Lindke v. Freed and O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier aim to strike a balance between preventing government censorship of online speech and preserving officials’ ability to express personal views on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

What is Alliance Defending Freedom?

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, marriage and family, and the sanctity of life.

Alliance Defending Freedom runs two specialized legal defense initiatives — Alliance Defending Freedom Church Alliance and Alliance Defending Freedom Ministry Alliance. These initiatives offer tailored legal services to churches, ministries, and other faith-based organizations. Their purpose is to provide legal support to religious entities, enabling them to operate freely in accordance with their sincerely held beliefs without facing potential legal challenges or hindrances.

In August 2023, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a friend-of-the-court brief in O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier. The case centered around whether public officials can be held liable for violating citizens’ free speech rights by blocking them from the officials’ social media accounts used to disseminate government information.

The Garnier case involved two parents in California who sued after being blocked from the personal social media accounts of local school board members. The parents had posted criticisms of the board members on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, which the members routinely used to communicate official school district business to the public.

Alliance Defending Freedom’s amicus brief was submitted in partnership with the law firm Brown Fox PLLC on behalf of the Manhattan Institute, a think tank promoting economic liberty principles. The brief proposed a “purpose and appearance” legal test for determining when a public official’s social media activity should be considered state action subject to First Amendment constraints versus personal free speech.

The Supreme Court’s subsequent rulings largely embraced the nuanced analytical framework advocated by Alliance Defending Freedom and its partners.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Lindke v. Freed established criteria for determining when a public official’s social media post constitutes state action that must adhere to First Amendment free speech protections. The ruling set forth two requirements: The official must possess actual authority to speak on the government’s behalf and must have purported to exercise that authority in the specific social media post.

In O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier, the Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s previous ruling and sent the case back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to be re-evaluated under the new two-part test established in the Lindke v. Freed decision.

In a statement on Alliance Defending Freedom Media, ADF Senior Counsel John Bursch said that “social media is the modern public square” where officials must be held accountable for suppressing speech when acting in their public capacity. “Government officials cannot hide behind technology to pick and choose which viewpoints are allowed on issues of public concern,” he said.

“At the same time, government officials retain their own free speech rights to voice their personal views. The U.S. Supreme Court rightly recognized that government actors can be held responsible when the content and function of their social media interactions reflect government action, while protecting those officials’ freedom of speech when using social media for private purposes,” Bursch added.

Alliance Defending Freedom’s Jeremy Tedesco, a senior vice president overseeing corporate engagement efforts, hailed the rulings as “a major win for the free and open exchange of ideas” in today’s digital public square.

Learn more about Alliance Defending Freedom here:

Related Posts