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I am a Ph.D. student at a large public university in the US. I am working on completing my defense and trying to graduate before the end of the summer term. I found out recently, rather accidentally, that the university's official account had blocked me on social media. This is presumably because I had posted critical comments on a number of their posts.

Are public universities allowed to do this? I believe this violates some federal precedent based on President Donald Trump, where he was made to unblock politicians he disagreed with on social media. I would like to address this for the sake of future students.

If I pursue this, is this likely to harm my academic career? I am concerned about potentially starting a legal battle with the university since I hope to graduate soon and am currently asking for letters of recommendation. The last thing I would want is for a professor who would disagree with my take on a certain issue in favor of the university's position and have that affect possible letters of recommendation.

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    This question is probably better suited for Law.SE.
    – Anyon
    May 18 '21 at 17:39
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    My guess would be that they don't block quite as cavalierly as is implied here, and that "disagreeing respectfully" crossed a line that's not actually respectful. However, probably this comment will not convince you of that.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 18 '21 at 19:13
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    Obligatory xkcd.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    May 18 '21 at 19:43
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    Comments have been moved to chat and a few suggestions have been edited into the post. Please note the post notice above; future answers-in-comments and so forth cannot be retroactively moved to chat and must therefore be deleted without warning. Note, the first question is somewhat borderline for this site; we are not legal experts. The second seems okay to me.
    – cag51
    May 19 '21 at 1:10
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If you want legal advice you should hire a lawyer. I'm surprised to discover this, but from a cursory reading of Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump and reports on the decision, it sure looks like it would apply to public universities. If that's the case, then public universities would be quite restricted in the reasons they could use to block accounts. Of course, we don't know why they blocked you, and it's possible they did so for reasons unrelated to viewpoint. But I'm not a lawyer, and it's quite possible that there's a key point I'm missing here, and at any rate the issue has not yet been litigated so it's impossible to give a certain answer.

As to whether it's a good idea, cheersmate gets it right on this point: there's no possible good that this can do you, and a lot of potential for harm to you. This is especially true if your posts in question are insulting or otherwise paint you in an unprofessional light. If they're genuinely unoffensive content, then probably suing won't harm you much, but it'd still be expensive and time-consuming, and some people might be nervous about interacting with someone who brings lawsuits at the drop of a hat.

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    The question is whether this university account is a "public forum." If that's not how the university is using it, then Knight doesn't apply. From what the OP said in chat, it also appears that he was not blocked from other university accounts that are used to conduct university business. May 19 '21 at 21:04
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    Right, they'd have to decide whether that particular account was a public forum (it seems very clear to me from Knight that the main university twitter account is a public forum, but maybe other university accounts are different) and they'd have to decide whether the account was blocked because of viewpoint. Both of those depend on facts not available to us. May 19 '21 at 21:09
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    Your university uses its "main" twitter account to engage in debates on controversial campus issues? It seems to me that such accounts don't serve any purpose other than to make dumb PR announcements. It's not like there's nowhere else to make your voice heard. May 19 '21 at 21:17
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    Trump was conducting government business on his Twitter account, not just making announcements about someone else's decisions. He was actually hiring and firing people real time on Twitter. May 19 '21 at 21:26
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    I was making a distinction between what Trump was doing and what a university PR office does. I'm not a lawyer either, but again, the central issue is whether this particular account is a "public forum." The footnote at the bottom of p.17 cites a case defining a public forums as "places that the government has opened for use by the public as a place for expressive activity.” Trump did this implicitly, top p.23. IMO, a university PR account does not, especially if there are alternative forums. Not every interaction with the public must or should be considered a place of expressive activity. May 19 '21 at 22:15
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Can a public university block me on their official social media account if I am a student and/or employee?

De facto: yes. De jure: we don't know (see Noah Snyder's answer and the comments), but I don't see a compelling reason against it.

I am concerned about potentially starting a legal battle with the university

Then don't.

But I'm not sure I should even worry about it because of how close I am to graduating and whether it will affect my job search.

Starting legal battles simply because of political disagreement or because you cannot accept being blocked (after a twitter fight with you using multiple accounts) means there will be a public record of behavior which many people will find unpleasant. Such a reputation can obviously affect future job prospects. To avoid this, don't do anything which earns you a this reputation (i.e., let it go).

At the same time, even if it will have no long-lasting effect on me, I don't want the problem to go unaddressed for other students.

As you only found out "rather accidentally" about being blocked, there seems to be not that big of a problem. Possibly other students avoid this situation by avoiding posts which get them blocked in the first place.

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    I suspect your answer to the first part is correct, but would be nice to see a citation. As for the second part, it's perhaps logical to give the university the benefit of the doubt, but theoretically, if a university was posting abhorrent content and blocking students who dissented, I think many reasonable people would think legal action was appropriate.
    – cag51
    May 19 '21 at 1:20
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    @cag51 Added a disclaimer. Regarding the theoretical scenario: I think it is extremely unlikely that a (large, public) university posts anything really repulsive. The people maintaining these accounts are usually professionals and avoid anything controversial.
    – cheersmate
    May 20 '21 at 7:08
  • @cheersmate Your answer is good (+1), but regarding your controversial posts comment, I don't think that's true. See here for a representative social media post: m.facebook.com/IndianaUniversity/posts/10159180323819595 (and see the comments for the apparent controversy). It wouldn't be surprising at all if this exact topic was what the OP was referring to; most major unis have made similar official statements on the last year, and they've received pushback from conservative politicians, alumni, donors, etc. May 20 '21 at 13:19
  • So that my meaning is unambiguous: I certainly don't mean to say that the IU Facebook post I linked is "abhorrent," and I don't personally find it to be "controversial." But, per the comments on that same post, others may disagree with me, and that's one of the obviously thorny facets of any of this discussion. May 20 '21 at 14:29

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