Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is set to testify in Brooklyn federal court on Tuesday in support of a cause of growing importance to politicians in the internet age: .
One of Congress’s most influential voices on the progressive left, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has amassed a huge and ardent audience of fans and detractors on Twitter, with more than 5.7 million followers. Like President Trump, the freshman Democrat representing Queens and the Bronx has banned a few followers from her personal Twitter account—@AOC—and faces a First Amendment lawsuit as a result.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s case is the latest in a burgeoning number of lawsuits challenging the right of elected leaders to curate their social-media audience and censor their toughest critics. Already Mr. Trump, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, at least two governors and other local government figures face similar First Amendment lawsuits.
The Constitution restricts government regulation of private speech, protecting against the exclusion of voices in public spaces on the basis of viewpoint. Like other politicians, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez argues in court papers that her @AOC handle is essentially a private soapbox outside the control of government and fundamentally different from her official accounts, @repAOC.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is being sued by Dov Hikind, a former Democratic state assemblyman from New York City.
Mr. Hikind had repeatedly assailed Ms. Ocasio-Cortez for likening southern border detention centers to concentration camps. On July 5, replying to one of her tweets, he said: “You’re actually a liar. It’s been proven.”
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Three days later, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez blocked Mr. Hikind, who represented Brooklyn’s Borough Park before founding a nonprofit group that advocates against anti-Semitism. He sued her the next day.
“In an effort to suppress contrary views, [Ms. Ocasio-Cortez] has excluded Twitter users who have criticized AOC and her positions as a Congresswoman via ‘blocking,’” his lawsuit stated, using Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s nickname based on her initials. “This practice is unconstitutional and must end.”
- limited his ability to view her account,
- reply to her posts and
- engage in discussions with other users about her tweets.
On the internet, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez defended her social-media policy as justified self-protection.
Without referring to Mr. Hikind, she tweeted in August that she has blocked under 20 accounts “for ongoing harassment” and never censored one of her own constituents. Those users, she wrote, “do not have the right to force others to endure their harassment and abuse.”
Mr. Hikind says none of his tweets could be considered harassment.
Before making any ruling, U.S. District Judge Frederic Block scheduled a hearing Tuesday to hear directly from Ms. Ocasio-Cortez about her reasons for blocking Mr. Hikind.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s office declined to comment.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s court appearance plunges Twitter into another content controversy, on the heels of Twitter’s announcement last week that it will ban political ads.
Twitter rules point to the frequent difficulty of distinguishing between harassment and what it calls “consensual conversation.” Its user policies forbid harassment and other behavior that is intended to artificially amplify information or that “manipulates or disrupts people’s experience on Twitter.”
Twitter declined to comment. It is a member of the Internet Association, Silicon Valley’s policy and lobbying umbrella, which in a related case urged the courts against making any far-reaching ruling that could interfere with its control over customer accounts. The association didn’t take a position on the main question: whether a government official blocking Twitter users violates the First Amendment.
Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, a nonprofit that promotes free speech, disagrees with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, arguing that her @AOC account is an extension of her office, used to explain policy proposals, solicit public comment on government issues and advocate for legislation.
The most high-profile ruling came in July, when the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that Mr. Trump violated the First Amendment when he blocked Twitter users who criticized the president and his policies.
“The First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise‐open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees,” wrote Circuit Judge Barrington D. Parker in the 3-0 ruling.
The Justice Department, which represented Mr. Trump, had argued that @realdonaldtrump was a private platform for his own personal speech.
The First Amendment law is the same whether the defendant is Mr. Trump or Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, said constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley.
“There may be an argument here that it was a private account and not used for government business,” he said. “But that is a factual question and not a First Amendment issue.”
Not all plaintiffs in these cases have prevailed. A federal judge last year refused to grant an injunction against Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin who blocked hundreds of people from his Twitter and Facebook sites.
It’s ok to buy ads on Facebook where you lie, so long as you are a prominent politician.
Many people associate concerns about global warming as threatening to industrial masculinity.
The idea that proponents of greater electoral equity have to quiet down because we live in a ‘republic’ is absurd.
It’s worth asking where this quip — “we’re a republic, not a democracy” — even came from. Nicole Hemmer, a historian of American politics and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics,” traces it to the 1930s and 40s. “When Franklin Roosevelt made defending democracy a core component of his argument for preparing for, and then intervening in, the war in Europe, opponents of U.S. intervention began to push back by arguing that the U.S. was not, in fact, a democracy,” she wrote in an email.
One Roosevelt opponent, for example — Boake Carter, a newspaper columnist who supported the America First Committee (which opposed American entry into World War II) — wrote a column in October 1940 called “A Republic Not a Democracy,” in which he strongly rebuked the president for using the word “democracy” to describe the country. “The United States was never a democracy, isn’t a democracy, and I hope it will never be a democracy,” Carter wrote.
The term went from conservative complaint to right-wing slogan in the 1960s, when Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, used it in a September 1961 speech, “Republics and Democracies.” In a democracy, Welch protested, “there is a centralization of governmental power in a simple majority. And that, visibly, is the system of government which the enemies of our republic are seeking to impose on us today.”
“This is a Republic, not a Democracy,” Welch said in conclusion, “Let’s keep it that way!”
These origins are important. If there’s substance behind “We’re a republic, not a democracy,” it’s not as a description of American government. There’s really no difference, in the present, between a “republic” and a “democracy”: Both connote systems of representation in which sovereignty and authority derive from the public at large.
The point of the slogan isn’t to describe who we are, but to claim and co-opt the founding for right-wing politics — to naturalize political inequality and make it the proper order of things. What lies behind that quip, in other words, is an impulse against democratic representation. It is part and parcel of the drive to make American government a closed domain for a select, privileged few.
House Democratic leaders, their patience clearly fraying, signaled this weekend to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s outspoken top aide that his seeming efforts to lead an insurrection against more moderate Democrats would no longer be tolerated — a message also aimed at the freshman congresswoman who employs him.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal firebrand from the Bronx, has given her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, remarkable latitude to pursue the divisive politics that made his name when he led Justice Democrats, a group founded to challenge entrenched Democrats through primary campaigns.
With that license, Mr. Chakrabarti has become an unelected symbol of the party’s growing disunity, as Democrats try to coalesce as a party before what promises to be a punishing fight next year for the White House. The battle between the Democrats who secured the House majority last year by flipping Republican districts and the smaller, but politically potent, left-wing from secure Democratic districts has found its cause célèbre.
Mr. Chakrabarti ignited a firestorm two weeks ago after a bruising intraparty fight over an emergency border aid package that progressives said lacked sufficient restrictions on the Trump administration. Calling out moderate Democrats who sank a more liberal aid package, he compared them to “new Southern Democrats.”
They “certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s,” he said on Twitter. He later deleted the tweet.
On Friday night, Democratic leaders showed that they had enough. Using the House Democratic Caucus’s official Twitter account, they delivered a rhetorical slap that questioned not only Mr. Chakrabarti’s future but also whether Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wanted to be a lawmaker on the inside or an outsider campaigning to purge the party of centrists and force it to the left.
The rebuke shared a tweet by Mr. Chakrabarti that explained that he believed Representative Sharice Davids of Kansas, one of the two first Native American women to serve in Congress, was enabling a “racist system” in voting for a weaker border aid package.
“I don’t think people have to be personally racist to enable a racist system,” the aide had written, to which Democratic leaders demanded,“Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color?”
The slap ended with, “Keep her name out of your mouth.”
Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color?
Her name is Congresswoman Davids, not Sharice.
She is a phenomenal new member who flipped a red seat blue.
KeepHerNameOutOfYourMouth.17.8K people are talking about this
That last phrase was filled with its own meaning. It echoed a blow delivered on Tuesday to the White House adviser Kellyanne Conway by Representative Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, a member of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s “squad,” who wrote, “Keep my name out of your lying mouth.”
To further make the point, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, retweeted the slap.
Mr. Chakrabarti, a former Silicon Valley start-up founder turned left-wing political organizer, has defiantly retained his outsider streak even after becoming a chief of staff at one of the nation’s most establishment institutions, the House. That has riled ranks of Democratic lawmakers and aides. While convention on Capitol Hill holds that aides are to be seen and not heard, he has publicly and repeatedly criticized Ms. Pelosi. Perhaps most galling to lawmakers, he has also encouraged his Twitter followers to support liberal candidates trying to oust sitting Democrats, an uneasy reminder of his work with Justice Democrats.
He has cultivated a remarkably high profile for a congressional aide. He “isn’t just running her office,” a Washington Post Magazine profile of him said, “he’s guiding a movement.” A headline from Elle magazine crowed, “You Need to Know Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Chief of Snacks Saikat Chakrabarti.”
Mr. Chakrabarti has also remained defiant. He dismissed the rebuke from Democratic leadership Friday night, arguing that “Everything I tweeted 2 weeks ago was to call out the terrible border funding bill that 90+ Dems opposed.”
“Our Democracy is literally falling apart,” Mr. Chakrabarti tweeted. “I’m not interested in substance-less Twitter spats.”
Justice Democrats, the group he founded, and over a dozen other progressive groups backed him on Saturday, releasing a statement expressing concern that “senior Democratic Party leaders and their aides have been escalating attacks on new leaders in the party” and urging them to focus on “the real crisis at hand” at the border.
The drama may be more reminiscent of a high school student council than the House of Representatives, but it has created a dilemma for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. The progressive darling has remained silent on her aide’s remarks; her spokesman declined to comment on Saturday. Asked on Thursday to comment on her aide’s earlier tweets, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez replied that she had “not been paying attention to this.”
That is likely to further anger House members, many of whom are people of color representing moderate to conservative districts. It is considered a breach of protocol for unelected congressional aides to criticize lawmakers even in closed-door meetings — much less publicly blast out their grievances — and those who step out of line typically face consequences.
As the chairman of a powerful conservative caucus, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican, fired a top aide in 2013 after allegations that the aide had allied with conservative advocacy groups to blow up a Republican leadership budget deal.
“We all rely on staff, but we have to have the full trust of our staff,” Mr. Scalise said at the time.
But Ms. Ocasio-Cortez prides herself on eschewing convention — an instinct that guided her ascent to become the youngest-ever elected representative — and so far has extended that approach to her staff. Shortly after arriving to Capitol Hill, her legislative assistant, Dan Riffle, gave an interview in which he described fellow Democratic congressional aides as Ivy League “careerists” who “don’t think big and aren’t here to change the world.”
Mr. Chakrabarti also has unloaded his grievances, sparing no one.
“Pelosi claims we can’t focus on impeachment because it’s a distraction from kitchen table issues. But I’d challenge you to find voters that can name a single thing House Democrats have done for their kitchen table this year,” Mr. Chakrabarti wrote after the divisive vote on border aid. “What is this legislative mastermind doing?”
“I like to show my cards and see people’s reactions,” Mr. Chakrabarti told The Washington Post Magazine, echoing President Trump. But other controversies have dogged him — in part because of the outsize attention Ms. Ocasio-Cortez receives from right-wing news outlets — for a lack of forthrightness.
After graduating from Harvard, Mr. Chakrabarti worked for a year as a technology associate at the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, and then moved to Silicon Valley to help found the technology company Stripe. He is presumed to be rich, but has not filed a financial disclosure form, leadership aides say.
Because Ms. Ocasio-Cortez capped her senior aides’ salaries to ensure she could offer an entry-level wage of $52,000, her employees are below the income threshold that mandates public financial disclosure. Instead, a House ethics panel required her to compel at least one of her aides who can “act in the member’s name or with the member’s authority” to file a disclosure form.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez chose Mr. Riffle, the legislative assistant, to submit the disclosure, rather than Mr. Chakrabarti.
In March, a conservative group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission saying that Mr. Chakrabarti improperly disclosed the spending of two political action committees he helped establish that paid more than $1 million in 2016 and 2017 to a company he ran.
The company, Brand New Congress L.L.C., was an arm of a group he helped found by the same name that recruited community organizers as candidates who would all adopt the same transformative progressive platform; in turn, the group would contract their staff out to help run the candidates’ campaigns. To do this, Brand New Congress argued, the group had to be set up as a limited liability company — which is not required to disclose information about its owners or spending.
A lawyer for the company has said that Mr. Chakrabarti never received any salary or profit from the company, the political action committees or the campaign, and that the move was legal.
In all this, Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates campaign skills of a high order. She walks away with the movie, and not only because she’s the only winner. She’s quick on her feet, strategically alert, and absolutely sure of what she thinks, with an eye for her opponent’s jugular and a circulatory system that by all indications functions on pure ice water. A brief interlude in which she dissects one of Crowley’s multipage, full-color mailers—“this Victoria’s Secret catalog,” she calls it—is a master class in how incumbents like Crowley misread their own voters while still managing to make political consultants fabulously rich. Her use of social media shows perfect demographic pitch: agitprop, recipes, civics lessons, life affirmations like “You can grow through your imperfections,” jumbled together and running nonstop, make her Instagram and Twitter feeds endlessly informative and enjoyable. She’s Tony Robbins, Suze Orman, and Saul Alinsky, all in one... There is much talk of diversity in Knock Down the House, and the candidates and activists are indeed diverse in the predictable ways: They run the gamut of body type, from endo- to ectomorph, of regional accent, of ethnicity, of class background. But when it comes to politics—Medicare for All or a universal job guarantee—they are ideologically uniform. You’ll find more diversity of views in the locker room of the Burning Tree Club than in a recruiting session for Justice Democrats.