University of Missouri president relents on Twitter blocks

By Rudi Keller The Columbia Daily Tribune

Under the threat of a lawsuit, University of Missouri President Mun Choi has reversed course after blocking numerous Twitter accounts from students and others that criticized him or, in some cases, only mentioned him.

UM System President Mun Choi speaks at City Hall after a new health order closing bars early was announced by Health Director Stephanie Browning on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020.

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 comments.

“He decided to reverse his actions because the university does not need the distraction caused by this matter,” university spokesman Christian Basi said Thursday.

An attorney and MU graduate working in 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 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.

The letter helped push Choi to unblock the accounts, Basi said.

“It did play a role, along with the feedback that was received, and there were several conversations that took place,” he said.

Many public officials, most prominently President Donald Trump, have been sued for blocking people on social media. Federal courts have ruled against Trump, 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 Missouri 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.

On Wednesday afternoon, after Choi's actions were getting attention on social media but before Bennett's letter, Basi said he could not answer why any individual was blocked but that many of the accounts blocked included insults, some obscene.

"There was nothing productive or constructive about the tweets that were tagging him," Basi said.

Basi provided three examples but many of those blocked had complaints about MU’s COVID-19 response, including one tweet that complained about faucets in campus bathrooms that 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.

“I would like to say I am more surprised than I was, but the reaction has been to dismiss concerns and not acknowledge them,” Summers said in an interview with the Tribune.

The tweet was the first time Summers had tagged Choi. Not all of the users he blocked had actually included the Twitter handle, instead using his name.

“He was probably searching his name on Twitter to find out who was talking about him,” Summers said. “If you are actively searching your name and the concerns people are bringing to you, instead of reacting constructively you are just blocking them.”

Summers is one of the students who agreed to let Bennett represent them.

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 earned his undergraduate degree in 2005.

"I didn't ever anticipate I would be sending a letter like this to my alma mater," Bennett said.

Choi's 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, Bennett 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.