'Sue me': Attorney general mutes critics, media on personal X account as SCOTUS evaluates

Peter Neronha defends "sarcasm" against serial public records requester, mocks "tin foil hat" of COVID contrarian doctor. SCOTUS wary of Biden argument about public officials' personal social media.

Published: October 31, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: November 1, 2023 1:22pm

A Rhode Island mother and lawyer who made enemies of the Ocean State's education establishment and attorney general by filing reams of public records requests on sensitive issues may get a helping hand from the Supreme Court.

The justices heard oral arguments Tuesday in two cases probing the constitutionality of government officials blocking other users from their personal social media accounts.

Their decision may implicate Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha's documented "muting" of lawyer Nicole Solas, this Just the News reporter and 150 others on Neronha's personal account on X, formerly Twitter. He uses it prolifically for mostly personal but sometimes official purposes, identifies himself as attorney general, and is not averse to mocking critics.

Several justices seemed skeptical of the Biden administration's argument that public officials' actions on personal accounts don't become "state actions" even if they concern official duties, the Associated Press reported. 

Justice Samuel Alito called the distinction "quite artificial" and Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that former President Trump did "a lot of government" on his 87 million-follower personal X account, which Trump has used just once since reinstatement from the Capitol riot-related  suspension.

"It was an important part of how [Trump] wielded his authority, and to cut a citizen off from that is to cut a citizen off from part of the way that government works,” said Justice Elena Kagan, NBC News reported.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals started the ball rolling more than three years ago by forbidding Trump from blocking his critics on X, meaning they could neither read his posts nor respond to him.

Because Trump used it "as a primary vehicle for his official communications … many of great national importance," he created a "public forum" subject to First Amendment protections, a majority of the full court said in denying Trump's motion to rehear the case.

The ruling prompted a barrage of litigation against officials at lower levels, producing the two arguably incompatible rulings that SCOTUS considered Tuesday.

The 9th Circuit ruled against California school board members who blocked, filtered and hid hundreds of critical comments on their personal pages about race relations, racial disparities in suspension rates and alleged financial wrongdoing by the district superintendent. 

The pages' content was "overwhelmingly geared toward" information about the board's "official activities" and solicited "input from the public on policy issues relevant to Board decisions," the court said.

The 6th Circuit ruled in favor of a Michigan city manager who first deleted a constituent's critical comments about his COVID-19 policies, then blocked him, deeming James Freed's use of his personal Facebook page not "fairly attributable to the State."

The pending SCOTUS arguments apparently didn't concern Neronha, who on Sept. 12 told the public: "Troll accounts get the mute button."

Muting on X means an account holder can covertly remove others' posts from his timeline, whereas blocking prevents others from seeing his posts.

When Neronha referred to Solas's X tagline "sue me" in a snarky exchange with her, she filed an Access to Public Records Act request for the exact number of trolls.

"[A]ssuming arguendo" Neronha's personal account is covered by APRA, the office told Solas on Oct. 10 the answer was 152. She tagged those muted account holders, including this reporter, who had asked Neronha to confirm he personally wrote a snarky response to Solas on Sept. 29.

"Folks can protest me all they like," Neronha responded when Solas published his "bias list" Oct. 20. "And I do listen for a time […] Until they become a distraction. Then I move on."

Solas retorted that Neronha had just opened himself up to 152 First Amendment lawsuits.

The two have been on a collision course for at least two years, when Solas asked his office to force open school district meetings that considered race-related proposals.

Teachers unions soon sued her to block the release of district curriculum and policies related to critical race theory, antiracism, gender theory and children's sexuality. 

She filed a complaint against Neronha's office in July 2022 for "willful violation" of APRA and a request for "special independent counsel" to review the complaint, which Solas shared with Just the News.

Solas alleged the office created an "entirely new document in order to obstruct public information" – filing dates – from its "master list" of current Open Meetings Act and APRA complaints when she requested that information. It subsequently gave her the dates.

She's also seeking professional sanctions against Providence city lawyer Charles Ruggiero for allegedly lying to Neronha about Solas "doxing" the school district's director of equity and belonging, Aarav Sundaresh, by referring to the official's publicly stated gender identity. 

Providence Public Schools removed Sundaresh's affiliation with the National Trans Educators Network, but no other group, from its staff page after Just the News called attention to it. The district answered a query about the removal but didn't explain it.

Solas recently sought the AG's intervention against a person who shared a mutual Facebook friend with her, according to public and private communications she shared.

The person, who appears to be transgender, left a comment on her Facebook post about a Just the News report on her Providence spat, saying Solas deserves a "beetdown," and privately messaged her: "Pray thay [sic] you never run into me in RI." 

After getting a temporary restraining order in September, Solas asked the AG's office to file a "violation of probation" against the person, who allegedly assaulted state Sen. Gordon Rogers in February. Special Assistant Attorney General Adam Roach told her the request was passed to the criminal division.

Neronha's heavy use of his personal X account prompted his latest spat with Solas. "Awww. Does that bother you?" Neronha wrote Sept. 29 when Solas mocked him for "tweet[ing] like a girl" by sharing vacation photos. 

When former Brown University medical professor Andrew Bostom preserved the AG's exchanges with Solas and another critic "for posterity," Neronha was at the ready.

"Is there a tin foil hat emoji? If not, someone should create one," he wrote, possibly referring to Bostom's reputation as a COVID contrarian and related Twitter suspensions.

Talk radio station WPRO featured Solas and Neronha on segments last week about the muting. 

"When people want to get your attention they will tweet at you, and it's like your phone blowing up," Neronha said. He compared muting to leaving the office at day's end rather than keep meeting with constituents.

When it comes to critics who can still follow and read his posts, "I don't need to hear it 50 times a day," Neronha said. 

Solas has filed 47 "often … frivolous" complaints against others in addition to seven APRA requests from his office, he said. "She likes to play the role of the foil, that's fine. I don't take her bait."

He emphasized he has muted non-ideological accounts such as Brown Athletics but didn't dispute host Matt Allen's description of his responses to critics as "snarky." "Is sarcasm part of my sense of humor? Sure," Neronha said.

The AG's office didn't respond to queries for its explanation of how Neronha's use of his personal account will pass constitutional muster.

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