Choi blocks students on Twitter; relents under lawsuit threat
Under the threat of a lawsuit, University of Missouri President Mun Choi late Wednesday reversed course after blocking numerous Twitter accounts from students and others that criticized him or, in some cases, only mentioned him.
Students on Wednesday began posting screenshots that Choi had blocked them from viewing his Twitter account, @munychoi4545. Some of the blocked accounts used obscenities or insults in their posts mentioning Choi, while others, including Tribune freelance reporter Madeline Carter, made more innocuous posts.
One tweet complained about faucets in campus bathrooms didn't work.
"Y’all post saying how you’re doing everything you can for covid and telling us to wash our hands, but then how come this happens in like half the bathrooms I walk into on campus?" wrote Cannon Summers, a junior studying statistics.
Summers posted that the account was blocked at 9:29 a.m. and that the block was removed at 10:42 p.m. Summers did not immediately return a message Thursday morning seeking comment.
An attorney and MU graduate working in of Texas, Christopher Bennett, saw the tweets from students who were blocked and reached out. Several agreed to let him represent them at no cost and he sent a letter at 6:43 p.m. demanding that Choi unblock the accounts.
"Not only is it immoral and repugnant for President Choi to block students and other persons on social media who are trying to raise awareness of campus safety issues in the middle of a global pandemic, it is also unlawful," Bennett wrote.
Reached by telephone Thursday, Bennett said he wasn't sure whether his letter prompted Choi to unblock other users or it was done for some other reason. The unblocking settles it, he said, and the threatened legal action won't be filed.
Bennett received his undergraduate degree in 2005.
"I didn't ever anticipate I would be sending a letter like this to my alma mater," Bennett said.
On Wednesday afternoon, after Choi's actions were getting attention on social media but before Bennett's letter, MU spokesman Christian Basi said he could not answer why any individual was blocked but that many of the accounts blocked included insults, some obscene.
"There was noting productive or constructive about the tweets that were tagging him," Basi said.
The Twitter account is a personal account and is not owned or managed by the university, Basi said. Choi does not use it much, he added.
As of Thursday morning, Choi had tweeted or retweeted 29 times from the account created in 2017 and was following just three other users. All of the tweets directly from Choi are about the university or issues facing higher education.
In his letter, Bennettt noted that recent court precedent shows that the social media accounts of public figures, when used to announce or send messages about official actions, become public forums.
“As President Choi’s twitter account is a government forum, blocking people for their criticism of the university’s handling of a public health crisis constitutes viewpoint-based discrimination in violation of the First Amendment,” he wrote.
Federal courts have ruled against President Donald Trump in his attempts to block other users on Twitter, most recently in a decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. On Aug. 20, Trump’s attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review that decision.
Closer to home, U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes ruled in August 2019 that state Rep. Cheri Reisch, R-Hallsville, could not block accounts without violating the First Amendment rights of others.
On June 11, Wimes ordered Reisch to pay $51,680 in attorney costs for the plaintiff, Mike Campbell.
Check back later for more on this developing story.