A Duke School of Medicine alumnus beat President Donald Trump in court Wednesday.
Eugene Gu, School of Medicine '15 and a prominent figure on Twitter whom Trump blocked, won a federal lawsuit Wednesday along with six co-plaintiffs that ruled Trump cannot block users based on their expressed views. United States District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald noted in her ruling that Trump’s blocking of these users is in violation of the First Amendment by declaring his Twitter a public forum.
“We hold that portions of the @realDonaldTrump account—the 'interactive space' where Twitter users may directly engage with the content of the President’s tweets—are properly analyzed under the 'public forum' doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court, that such space is a designated public forum, and that the blocking of the plaintiffs based on their political speech constitutes viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment,” Buchwald wrote.
Gu's Twitter following grew to 180,000 followers after he posted a photo of himself kneeling to protest white supremacy on Twitter. The Chronicle reported in January that Vanderbilt Medical Center placed him on administrative leave in November 2017 one day after a patient complained about the tweet.
The ruling on the case, filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, is a declaratory judgment. Gu said the group was considering filing an injunction compel him to unblock him or his co-plaintiffs if Trump did not do so voluntarily. But two weeks after the ruling, Trump ultimately did unblock Gu.
"This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, 'block' a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed, and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States," Buchwald wrote in the opinion. "The answer to both questions is no."
Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute, said in a press release that the institute was pleased with the judge's ruling.
“The president’s practice of blocking critics on Twitter is pernicious and unconstitutional, and we hope this ruling will bring it to an end," Jaffer said.
Gu said he believes he was blocked after responding to a Trump tweet in June 2017 in which the president touted his approval rating in a Rasmussen Poll.
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Just a few weeks prior, Trump had sent the infamous "covfefe" tweet, which he deleted six hours after posting. Gu’s response to Trump’s Rasmussen tweet poked fun at his typo.
“My concern at the time, was this guy, with so much responsibility, who has all the nuclear codes, is so careless with a platform that is so powerful that he makes typos and doesn’t care about it,” Gu said Wednesday. “I think he blocked me for that because it was a legitimate criticism of his carelessness.”
Gu indicated that he strongly agrees with the judge’s ruling.
“This is a great precedent we have set for politicians that decide to use social media as a town hall to be held accountable to the rules of the First Amendment,” Gu said. “You can’t just use something like Twitter to host a public forum and then only have your supporters in there to create an echo chamber.”
When Gu was blocked, he said that he didn’t feel pride like some Twitter users do when they are blocked. Instead, he felt left out of the public conversation.
“I felt very much excluded. I would rather not have been blocked and to participate in the public forum than to get a momentary flash of pride for getting the president’s attention,” Gu said. “I care more about having my voice and my ideas heard by the millions of people that participate in this forum.”
Editor's note: This article was updated Tuesday morning to reflect that Gu has since been unblocked.
Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor
A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks.