from the not-how-it-works dept
So this post is going to touch on some issues that people get very emotional about, and I’m going to ask (probably pointlessly) that folks not focus on those issues, but on the issue that this post is actually trying to address: which is the ridiculous claim that Change.org can be sued for notifying users that statements in a petition “may be contested.” A group called “Stop Antisemitism” put a petition on Change.org making a bunch of claims about CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Many of those claims are ones that I would personally label as “highly questionable,” or in some cases “downright misleading,” and which some might say are simply “pure bullshit.” The actual petition is supposedly a call to have Attorney General William Barr investigate CAIR. Not surprisingly, a bunch of people have complained to Change.org about this particular petition.
Change.org decided to leave the petition up, but to append a “flag” at the top with the following text (in fairly small print):
Change.org has received flags from our users that the statements in this petition may be contested. You should consider researching this issue before signing or sharing.
All in all, this is relatively mild. Since this petition was apparently generating a lot of controversy, and controversy leads to flame wars, Change.org also made the perfectly reasonable decision to disable comments on the petition, as well as removed it directly from Change.org’s search. Finally, it removed a feature that lets users contribute to the organizations behind the petition after they sign it. Again, these are perfectly reasonable steps to take on a controversial petition.
Except that apparently “Stop Antisemitism” seems to think this is against the law. A group called the Zachor Legal Institute, which never explains what its exact relationship is with “Stop Antisemitism,” sent a laughably silly legal threat to Change.org, arguing that the actions described above — all of which are easily protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (not to mention the 1st Amendment) are somehow a violation of Stop Antisemitism’s 1st Amendment rights. This is… silly. After going on about some nonsense about Change.org’s terms of service, the threat letter makes the following claim, which is simply unsupported by the law anywhere:
While the Constitution’s First Amendment does not generally apply to private parties acting as such, when such a party operates and controls public platforms used by the public for public benefit, that party becomes a quasi-state actor and can be held liable for First Amendment violations. The fact that Change.org is also a Public Benefit Corporation bolsters the need for Change.org to be free from discrimination and allow all viewpoints to be expressed without censure or other infringement.
That’s not what the law says. It’s not what any court says. It’s rather telling, actually, that the letter cites literally nothing in support of these claims, because it has nothing it can cite.
We believe that the evidence set forth above demonstrates that Change.org has subjected the Subject Petition to a discriminatory campaign of demonetization, shadowbanning and censorship, in violation of Change.org’s own policies, governance standards for Public Benefit Corporations and applicable state and federal laws, including anti-discrimination principles of California and Delaware law, federal prohibitions on ware fraud and the First Amendment.
Say what now? This is the same basic garbage legal argument that has been used by neo-Nazis and other racists suing over being kicked off of Twitter — and so far its failed miserably, and this case here is even more ridiculous. As for the “wire fraud” claims… uh, what? There is nothing even remotely close to wire fraud in Change.org doing a bit of content moderation on its platform.
In the Jerusalem Post story linked above that first alerted us to this nonsense, Change.org notes that it disabled comments and other features on that particular petition because so many of the comments on that petition clearly violated the site’s community guidelines, and thus it felt it best to just turn them off entirely — which, again, is both an entirely reasonable decision and one that is clearly allowed under the law.
As far as I can tell, no actual lawsuit has been filed yet, but if one was, it would almost certainly be laughed out of court. I guess it’s no surprise that the organization sending the letter, the Zachor Legal Institute (which, again, never actually explains its relationship to “Stop Antisemitism”), talks about how it’s an advocacy organization focused on “the legal battle against ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ (BDS).” As we’ve discussed a few times, there’s been a clearly unconstitutional attack on BDS efforts lately. So I guess it figures if it’s going to go all unconstitutional on BDS, why not do the same on content moderation online as well?
No matter how you feel about CAIR, BDS or all of the related issues around them, the idea that Change.org can’t put a flag or otherwise moderate content on its platform is laughable. The idea that it violates the First Amendment by magically being some quasi-state actor is even more laughable. Change.org, like all internet platforms, is protected by both CDA 230 and the First Amendment, making it free to choose how it runs its site, including how it moderates content on that site. Even leaving aside that Change.org’s decisions in response to an inflammatory and misleading petition were much more subdued than this petition may have deserved, if it had chosen to delete the petition entirely, that too would have been protected.