“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” — John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” — Ronald W. Reagan’s Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, June 12, 1987

“Today, we come together as one Nation to salute the Veterans of the United States Armed Forces – the greatest warriors ever to walk on the face of the Earth.” — Donald J. Trump’s Twitter message on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2019 from his @realDonaldTrump account

These are all public statements made by U.S. Presidents while executing their duties of office.

As such, they should all become part of the official permanent record of their Presidential communication, right?

In the age of social media, the answer is not a simple “yes.”

DOCUMENTARY HERITAGE

For most of our country’s history, there was no definition of what constituted the official communications of the President.

Moreover, there was no systematic way of collecting and organizing Presidential communication.

It wasn’t until 1957 when the National Historical Publications Commission, whose mission is “to promote the preservation and use of America’s documentary heritage,” put forth recommendations to standardize what constituted official communication and how to collect it.

It called for the establishment of an official series of publications that would contain Presidential writings, addresses, and remarks of a public nature.

These publications now include the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents and the Public Papers of the President.

ON TAPE

As time passed and technology advanced, further considerations became necessary.

The 1970’s Watergate hearings revealed the existence President Nixon’s secret White House tapes.

A series of court cases ensued to determine the status of those tapes. Were they part of the public record of Presidential communication?

After years of litigation, careful scrutiny, and review, the final 340 hours of the Nixon tapes were deemed official communication and released to the public in 2013.

In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act (PRA) to further define what constitutes public ownership of records.

Furthermore it places the responsibility for the custody and management of incumbent Presidential records with the President.

The PRA went into effect the day Ronald Reagan took office (January 20, 1081) and remains in force today.

PREZ TWITTER

Fast forward to 2016. Donald J. Trump is running for President and using his personal Twitter account @realDonaldTrump to communicate with the public.

In November he wins the election and becomes the 45th President of the United States.

Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, President Trump chooses not to utilize the official Presidential Twitter account @POTUS and continues to use @realDonaldTrump in his official capacity as President.

Since taking office, President Trump has tweeted nearly 20,000 times on @realDonaldTrump.

With over 66.7 million followers, he has used Twitter with tremendous success to express his views on a wide variety of topics and impact public opinion.

‘OFFICIAL STATEMENTS’

But since Twitter communications had not been identified as an “official” communication channel, President Trump provoked the question: are his tweets part of the public record or are they private and owned by him?

In June 2017, this issue was somewhat clarified when the then White House press secretary Sean Spicer stated that Trump’s tweets were considered “official statements by the President of the United States”.

There are further complicating factors.

Every Twitter account owner has the ability to delete his or her tweets. President Trump has done this on numerous occasions in response to public outcry.

If the tweets are considered part of the public record, what about deleted tweets? Should they be included in the official record or not?

Clearly, our thinking about Presidential records needs to catch up with our current technologies.

A PUBLIC FORUM

On July 11, 2017, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed a lawsuit on behalf of seven individuals who had been blocked from @realDonaldTrump.

On Twitter, blocking users prevents them from seeing anything posted on that account and also prohibits those users from posting to that account.

The plaintiffs charged that their First Amendment rights were being violated because they had posted comments critical of the President and his policies in what they believed was a public forum.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unanimously agreed 3-0 in its decision rendered on July 9, 2019 when it ruled that @realDonaldTrump is a “public forum” under the First Amendment and therefore the government cannot exclude people from it based simply on their views.

This ruling, while still under petition, foreshadows the growing sense that @realDonaldTrump is in fact an official channel for Presidential communication and thus part of the public record.

When President Trump leaves office, it will be interesting to see what will become part of the official permanent record of his communication as chief executive. It will no doubt look much different than that of any of his predecessors.

Cerise Oberman, SUNY Distinguished Librarian Emeritus, retired as dean of Library & Information Services at SUNY Plattsburgh. She can be reached at cerise.oberman@plattsburgh.edu. Tim Hartnett is associate librarian at SUNY Plattsburgh, Reach him at tim.hartnett@plattsburgh.edu.

 

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