The city of New York (CNN Business)
Former President Donald Trump Files proposed class-action lawsuits on Wednesday against Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter and its CEO Jack Dorsey, as well as YouTube and its parent company’s CEO Sundar Pichai, in a last-ditch effort after being banned off their platforms.
Similar cases have usually been rejected by courts, and these are likely doomed from the start as well.
The lawsuits were announced after the firms blocked Trump’s access to their platforms in the wake of the January 6 violence on Capitol Hill.
Trump has been banned from Twitter, and he is presently barred from Facebook for at least two years.
YouTube banned Trump’s account in January, but announced in March that it will be restored if the firm is satisfied that the danger of violence has passed.
Twitter (TWTR), Facebook (FB), and Google (GOOGL), the parent company of YouTube, all refused to comment.
Tech firms have repeatedly denied allegations that their platforms discriminate against people based on their political beliefs.
Independent studies have not backed up such claims, and many have shown that political speakers, especially on the right, are among the most active on social media.
Trump’s actions follow a pattern that started during his presidency: suing businesses that he views to be a danger to his political brand.
Trump issued an executive order last spring, while still in office, aiming at “preventing internet censorship” and trying to increase legal responsibility for tech firms.
However, the internet firms are legally allowed to operate their platforms as they see appropriate, and judges have rejected a slew of similar cases.
Following the Capitol incident, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all announced their intentions to delete Trump’s accounts, citing the possibility for future encouragement of violence or dangers to public safety.
During a news conference on Wednesday, Trump announced the cases, saying he is asking a Florida judge to “put an immediate stop to social media companies’ unlawful, disgraceful suppression of the American people.”
“We’re going to hold big tech to a very high standard,” he added.
Throughout the almost hour-long event, Trump and others engaged in the campaign made extravagant statements about the possibilities for the lawsuits that are likely to be at variance with the cases’ real chances of success.
Trump’s staff started sending out financial pleas for the lawsuits less than an hour after the event.
The website soliciting participants for the planned class action lawsuit included a donation link, and the Republican National Committee also issued a fundraising plea referencing the complaint.
The lawsuits filed against Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube argue that the sites’ deletions of Trump amounted to censorship and that the actions violated his First Amendment right to free expression.
Such company activities were previously covered by Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934, a federal statute that gives legal protection to websites that regulate user-generated material and has been utilized by internet platforms to avert many lawsuits.
“Plaintiff humbly requests that this Court… prevent Defendants from exerting censorship, editorial control, or prior restraint in its many forms over the postings of President Trump and Putative Class Members,” according to the Twitter lawsuit.
(However, a judge must still certify that each of the cases may continue as a class action.)
The complaints also criticize the platforms’ response to the spread of misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic, including their reliance on the CDC — with whom Trump clashed as president and which the suit falsely claims has a “highly questionable reputation” — to help determine what information about the virus and treatments for it was true and what was false and misleading.
The suits seek, among other things, an order requiring social media companies to immediately reinstate the accounts of Trump and other members of the proposed class action suit who were removed from the platforms, an order requiring social media companies to remove warning labels on Trump’s posts, and a judgment declaring Section 230 unconstitutional.
Prior legal actions taken against Big Tech
The movement to sue tech platforms over prejudice claims has expanded throughout the country.
Florida enacted legislation in May enabling lawmakers who have been banned or removed from social media platforms to sue the businesses.
However, the endeavor has collided with the reality of existing law — and the Constitution.
A federal court stopped Florida’s legislation from taking effect last week, ruling that government efforts to compel social media firms to allow political speech violate the First Amendment.
(Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he would appeal.)
The court also ruled that the Florida legislation violated Section 230, which Trump intended to undermine with his executive order.
Several proposals have been introduced in Congress to limit the reach of Section 230, including by some Democrats who feel internet firms are not doing enough to combat hate speech and abuse online.
However, Republicans who are dissatisfied with how social media firms have enforced their rules when conservatives violate them have provided most of the impetus for altering Section 230.
In his order, Trump accused digital firms of “selective censorship that is hurting our national dialogue,” and he urged the Federal Communications Commission to “clarify” Section 230.
Legal experts and FCC officials alike questioned the agency’s power to do so, noting the same First Amendment concerns as were at the heart of the Florida legislation.
Trump’s directive was subsequently revoked by Vice President Joe Biden.
After failing to turn the US government’s machinery against the IT sector, Trump is now attempting to do so via the courts himself.
But, with Section 230 still in effect, it’s difficult to see how he might prevail.
Trump’s lawsuits do make a unique argument to attempt to get past this, but legal experts say it is likewise without substance and is unlikely to succeed.
One major argument in the lawsuits is that since social media cooperated with and depended on public health authorities for information and disinformation regarding the coronavirus epidemic, it should be regarded as a “state actor” subject to First Amendment censorship limitations.
According to Carl Tobias, a legal professor at the University of Richmond, the notion is a “big stretch on the law and the facts.”
“Because no court has agreed to this approach, Trump seems unlikely to win.”
According to Andrew Schwartzman, senior counselor at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, cooperation between the public and private sectors does not transform businesses into governments.
“Everything in these cases is ridiculous,” Schwartzman said, “which should not come as a surprise considering Trump’s penchant for bringing frivolous litigation.”
“The fact that platforms communicate with the government and even collaborate in the removal of speakers who break the law or endanger national security does not constitute them state tools.”
CNN is to be credited.
Reporting was provided by Michael Warren and Ashley Semler.