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Social media bias lawsuits keep failing in court

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Social media sites can legally ban users for nearly any reason. They can ban users for off-color jokes. They can ban users for being white supremacists. They can ban users for totally arbitrary and inscrutable reasons. If you sue over a Twitter or Facebook ban, you will almost certainly lose. Despite this, people keep filing lawsuits claiming they’ve been censored on social media — and today, courts handed down another defeat.

An appeals court in Washington, DC just rejected a complaint by Laura Loomer, the conservative activist who was banned from Twitter for anti-Muslim tweets and later chained herself to the company’s headquarters in protest. Loomer argued that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple had all colluded to suppress conservative content, violating Loomer’s First Amendment rights in the process. The court disagreed and threw out the suit.

It’s convenient timing, given that President Donald Trump has spent the past day excoriating Twitter for its alleged bias. Trump threatened Twitter after it applied a fact-checking label to his tweets, threatening some kind of unknown action to “strongly regulate” or close down sites that “silence conservatives’ voices.”

Anti-bias lawsuits — where people argue Twitter, Google, or Facebook are discriminating against them for political reasons and legally obligated to carry their speech — offer an illuminating look at why Trump’s boldest threats are probably bluster. Courts across the country have repeatedly defended social networks’ rights to ban at will. If Trump wanted to shut down sites that went against his wishes, he’d need to basically upend this precedent.

So let’s look at the cases.

Charles C. Johnson v. Twitter

Conservative blogger and activist Charles C. Johnson has been embroiled in multiple lawsuits, one of which accused Twitter of violating his free speech rights when it banned him in 2015. In mid-2018, a California court granted Twitter’s request to dismiss the complaint, finding that the rights at stake were Twitter’s, not Johnson’s. “It is well established that the constitutional right to free speech includes the right not to speak,” read its ruling. Twitter’s rules “clearly state that users may not post threatening tweets, and also that [Twitter] may unilaterally, for any reason, terminate a user’s account. The rules reflect [Twitter’s] exercise of free speech.”

Jared Taylor v. Twitter

Fringe far-right figure Jared Taylor, a white nationalist, sued Twitter for banning him in 2018 — claiming he’d been discriminated against because of his racist viewpoints. California judge Harold Kahn gave Taylor a surprising legal win when he allowed the case to proceed, calling it a “classic public interest lawsuit.” But Taylor’s luck didn’t last. As legal expert Eric Goldman discusses here, a California appeals court said the exact logic of Taylor’s suit didn’t matter. Twitter’s moderation choices were protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Craig Brittain v. Twitter

“Revenge porn mogul” Craig Brittain, who ran for an Arizona Senate seat in 2018, was also angry at Twitter for banning him. Brittain hit Twitter with a laundry list of claims, alleging everything from First Amendment violations to infliction of emotional distress. A California court found that Brittain’s claims hinged on treating Twitter as a publisher of his content and Section 230 clearly contradicted these claims.

Federal Agency of News v. Facebook

One unusual political lawsuit came from the Federal Agency of News (FAN), which was allegedly tied to the Russian Internet Research Agency “troll farm.” Facebook removed FAN’s page along with a lot of other propaganda in 2016. FAN then sued Facebook for First Amendment violations and breach of contract. Judge Lucy Koh slapped down the case once in 2019 and again in early 2020, following much of the reasoning described above. Although, as Goldman’s blog details, FAN had some particularly weird misconceptions about internet law, including the idea that Section 230 had an exception for political speech. For the record, it doesn’t.

Prager University v. Google

Conservative advocacy group Prager University filed one of the best-known bias suits against Google in 2017, alleging that YouTube had unfairly restricted access to some of its videos. Like Loomer, PragerU accused Google of violating the First Amendment. Among other claims, it also said Google had violated the Lanham Act with false advertising.

Neither of these arguments worked. California federal judge Lucy Koh dismissed the case in 2018, saying Google and YouTube were “private entities who created their own video-sharing social media website and make decisions about whether and how to regulate content that has been uploaded on that website,” not federal agencies or companies that functioned as an official arm of the government.

An appeals court upheld the dismissal in February of this year, saying PragerU’s censorship claim “faces a formidable threshold hurdle: YouTube is a private entity. The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government — not a private party — from abridging speech.”

Tulsi Gabbard v. Google

At least one major Democratic politician has filed an anti-bias suit as well. Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard sued Google in 2019 after the company briefly suspended her ad account, alleging the company was trying to undercut her bid for the party’s nomination.

This suit got a blisteringly snarky dismissal in March. California district Judge Stephen Wilson noted that “Google is not now, nor (to the Court’s knowledge) has it ever been, an arm of the United States government.” He cited the case against PragerU as legal precedent, concluding again that private web platforms aren’t held to the same standards as governments.

Robert Wilson v. Twitter

In one very recent case, Twitter user Robert Wilson claimed he was banned for “freedom of speech and or heterosexual expressions” and sued for civil rights and First Amendment violations. As expected, this didn’t fly. A West Virginia court ruled against this argument just a few weeks ago, saying Twitter was clearly a private forum. “That private social media companies now host platforms which imitate the functions of public forums — in many respects more effectively than the traditional public forums of government-owned sidewalks, streets, and public parks — does not mean that the entities are state-actors,” read the ruling.

Laura Loomer v. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple

Laura Loomer made one of the most complicated cases against Silicon Valley. She sued alongside conservative legal group Freedom Watch in 2018, claiming that four of the tech world’s biggest companies had violated antitrust law by conspiring to suppress conservative content on their platforms, as well as violated the First Amendment by acting as “quasi-state actors.”

The companies failed to get the suit thrown out immediately, with the DC Circuit Court of Appeals saying the claims weren’t clear enough to dismiss out of hand. But today, the actual ruling was squarely against Loomer. “The Plaintiffs raise non-trivial concerns,” the court concluded. But they “failed to state viable legal claims” to support them — including evidence that a conspiracy existed or that private websites were public spaces that operated like a government.

…and many more.

People have been suing internet platforms for banning them since long before Trump took office; back in 2009, for instance, a PlayStation Network user sued on the grounds that Sony had created a “company town.” (The user lost.) Courts have overwhelmingly concluded that social media networks can ban, limit, or otherwise suppress users’ posts.

Conversely, government figures like Trump actually face strict rules about blocking users. Last year, a court required Trump to unblock Twitter accounts that had criticized him, determining that his Twitter account specifically — not the site as a whole — constituted a public space protected by the First Amendment. Other public officials have lost similar lawsuits from constituents.

Why do these suits keep getting filed? Some look like publicity stunts: activists and politicians can raise their profile by going after a big company like Google or Twitter, even if they’re unlikely to win. Some low-profile cases come from private citizens who seem genuinely confused about the law — a situation exacerbated by politicians pushing misinformation about sites’ legal risks. And other people look for novel arguments that might get past a judge, hitting companies with a scattershot barrage of claims.

But if Trump wants Twitter legally barred from labeling his tweets or banning his supporters’ accounts — which is what his tweets imply — he’ll be changing a widely acknowledged legal standard.

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