Donald Trump Sues Facebook, YouTube And Twitter For Alleged Censorship

Jul 7, 2021
Originally published on July 8, 2021 9:32 am

Updated July 7, 2021 at 2:37 PM ET

Former President Donald Trump is suing Facebook, Twitter and Google's YouTube over their suspensions of his accounts after a mob of his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol in January.

Trump filed class action complaints in federal court in Florida, alleging the tech giants are censoring him and other conservatives — a long-running complaint on the right for which there is little evidence and that the companies deny.

The suits call for the court "to order an immediate halt to social media companies' illegal, shameful censorship of the American people," Trump said at a news conference at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. "We're demanding an end to the shadow banning, a stop to the silencing and a stop to the blacklisting, banishing and canceling that you know so well."

The long-shot legal actions are the latest escalation in Trump's long-running feud with the social media platforms that he used prolifically before and during his presidency.

After the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the companies kicked Trump off their platforms, citing the risk of further violence. Twitter banned Trump permanently, Facebook has suspended him for two years and YouTube has said it will let him return only "when we determine that the risk of violence has decreased."

In Tuesday's lawsuits, the former president accuses the companies of violating his First Amendment rights and of behaving like "state actors" rather than private companies in putting restrictions on what people can post.

He has asked the court to order the companies to reinstate him and other members of the proposed class of plaintiffs.

He also wants the court to declare a federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, unconstitutional. That 1996 law says online sites largely are not legally responsible for what their users post. While in office, in retaliation for Twitter's fact-checking of his tweets, Trump signed an executive order attempting to strip social media companies of Section 230 protection. (President Biden has revoked the order.)

In addition to the companies, the lawsuits name Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai as defendants, although not YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.

Spokespeople for Facebook and Twitter declined to comment. YouTube and Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Legal experts say Trump's lawsuits are likely doomed from the start because of the strong protections that both Section 230 and the First Amendment give the companies to decide what speech they allow.

"Trump has the First Amendment argument exactly wrong," said Paul Barrett, an adjunct law professor and deputy director at New York University's Center for Business and Human Rights. He described the lawsuits as "DOA," or dead on arrival, because the First Amendment applies to government restrictions on speech, not the actions of private companies.

Even conservative experts voiced skepticism about Trump's legal case.

"These social media platforms are private property, not the government town square, and are well within their First Amendment rights to refuse to carry speech of third parties. This principle holds even with the former president of the United States and is the constitutional right of every citizen," said Jessica Melugin at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "This lawsuit is a publicity stunt intended for political gain, not a serious legal argument."

Previous attempts to sue the platforms over their content-moderation decisions have been quickly tossed by courts. Last week, a federal judge blocked a new Florida law from taking effect. It would have fined large social media companies if they banned politicians. The court said the law likely violated the First Amendment.

Section 230 has come under broader scrutiny from both Republicans and Democrats in recent years, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle saying its liability protections should be pared back. However, they are divided on what reform would look like, with Republicans focusing their criticisms on alleged censorship and Democrats seeking to hold the companies more responsible for misinformation and other harmful content.

Editor's note: Facebook and Google are among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump was kicked off of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which Google owns, after his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Now he is suing those companies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Our case will prove this censorship is unlawful. It's unconstitutional. And it's completely un-American.

KING: NPR's Shannon Bond reports on the escalation of Trump's fight with Silicon Valley. And I should note that Facebook and Google are among NPR's financial supporters.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Donald Trump says this is about more than his ban from social media. He's filed class action lawsuits seeking to represent other conservatives whom he says the companies have mistreated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We're demanding an end to the shadow banning, a stop to the silencing and a stop to the blacklisting, banishing and canceling that you know so well.

BOND: Conservatives frequently claim they're being censored by big tech even though there's little evidence to support that. Trump wants the court to order Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to give him and his fellow plaintiffs their accounts back. And the federal law that protects tech companies from being sued over their content decisions, Trump wants that declared unconstitutional. He says it's a battle over the First Amendment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And in the end, I am confident that we will achieve a historic victory for American freedom, and at the same time, freedom of speech.

BOND: But legal experts say he has that argument all wrong because the First Amendment protects speech from government restrictions, not private companies. Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, has studied cases just like this one.

ERIC GOLDMAN: The message is quite clear. The plaintiffs never win. They lose. And they usually lose early.

BOND: Goldman says courts routinely reject the argument that social networks like Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, are acting like an arm of the government by restricting what users can post.

GOLDMAN: It's like saying Mark Zuckerberg works for the government. I think we all know better than that. And so these arguments just really don't work. They're just not credible.

BOND: Before he was banned, Trump relied on Twitter to speak directly to the public and on Facebook to raise money. Shortly after announcing the lawsuits, the former president began texting and emailing supporters, asking them for donations.

Shannon Bond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.