from the bad-things-afoot dept
Well, this is unfortunate. Back in May of last year we wrote about how Missouri and Louisiana had sued the Biden administration, claiming “censorship” over social media based on a bunch of convoluted and nonsensical claims, most of which were about events that happened during the Trump administration.
We noted that, when viewed in the most forgiving light, the best we could make of the ridiculously poorly plead account was that they were trying to make a jawboning argument, saying that some of the administrations comments (mostly about reforming or repealing Section 230) acted as a de facto threat to social media to get those companies to silence speech. As we’ve gone into great detail about before, the Biden administration has, at times, gone stupidly close to the 1st Amendment line, but we hadn’t seen how they’d gone past it. And the initial complaint was so poorly done, and so focused on being a political document (it was brought by then Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who happily used it to grandstand on his way to being elected a US Senator last year, which is his current job), that it didn’t come close to making this argument coherently.
Also, what’s weird about the argument is that Republicans over the last few years have been angrier about Section 230, and have been louder about their threats to repeal it.
Even worse, many of the examples the complaint claimed were proof of “censorship” by the Biden administration were issues like the false claims that it tried to censor the story about the Hunter Biden laptop (which even the Twitter Files confirmed was not blocked by Twitter on behalf of any request from either the government or the Biden campaign, which wasn’t even the government anyway). The complaint also talked about Twitter’s decision to block sharing regarding the (now considered more credible) “lab leak” theory, though again, that happened during the Trump administration, not the Biden one. (Update: it turns out this argument is even dumber than I thought since it was Facebook, not Twitter who banned discussions about a “lab leak” theory).
Throughout the Fall last year, then AG/Senatorial candidate Schmitt used the case to release extremely misleading and misrepresented documents to bolster the still unproven claim of the Biden administration conspiring with social media companies to silence speech. Indeed some journalists even fell for it.
Still, as more and more papers were filed in the case, which now has a docket with well over 200 entries, it meant that perhaps the states would be able to drag the case out. And… that’s exactly what’s happened.
The district court judge, Terry Doughty, a Trump-appointed judge who somewhat famously blocked President Biden’s COVID vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, has now written a bonkers, ridiculous, laughable ruling that basically would represent a massive change in 1st Amendment doctrine if allowed to stand.
The ruling starts out badly, and then gets progressively more unhinged, taking conspiracy theories and nonsense claims that have been rejected in basically every other court, and saying “yup, sure, that sounds reasonable.”
Much of the ruling focuses on whether or not the two states even have standing to bring these claims. The court says they do, because they have “adequately” argued “injury-in-fact.” The reasons why are, frankly, boring and not worth getting into. This is also true of a few private plaintiffs who are involved in the lawsuit: in this case some well known peddlers of misleading information who were banned from Twitter, which they insist happened because of the Biden administration.
The White House pointed out (reasonably) that those still don’t qualify for standing because Twitter’s private moderation actions are not traceable to the White House because the White House had nothing to do with them. Here, the court gets, well, stupid. The judge more or less accepts conspiracy theory nonsense that the White House pressured Twitter to silence voices:
Here, however, Plaintiffs have alleged the full picture: a cohesive and coercive campaign by the Biden Administration and all of the Agency Defendants to threaten and persuade social media companies to more avidly censor so-called “misinformation.” Thus, while the Changizi plaintiffs may have left gaps in their pleadings, Plaintiffs in the current case have not. Plaintiffs have alleged, as described in detail above, a “ramping up” in censorship that directly coincides with the deboosting, shadow-banning, and account suspensions that are the subject of the Amended Complaint. And these are not mere generalizations: Plaintiffs made specific allegations showing a link between Defendants’ statements and the social-media companies’ censorship activities. While Plaintiffs acknowledge that some censorship existed before Defendants made the statements that are the subject of this case, they also allege in detail an increase in censorship, which is tied temporally to the Defendants’ actions. Thus, Plaintiffs here provide the allegations that may have been missing in the Changizi complaint.
Further, the Defendants’ reliance on Hart v. Facebook Inc., No. 22-CV-00737-CRB, 2022 WL 1427507 (N.D. Cal. May 5, 2022), is also misplaced. As in the above cases, the plaintiffs in Hart sought redress for censorship of their viewpoints on social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. However, the Hart court found that the plaintiff’s allegations were simply too “vague” and “implausible” to fairly connect the government officials to the actions of the social-media companies. Id. at 5. But as this Court has repeatedly noted, Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint simply cannot be characterized as “vague.” Instead, Plaintiffs have carefully laid out the alleged scheme of censorship and how Defendants are specifically connected to and involved with it.
This reads like motivated reasoning by a judge very, very interested in justifying a result rather than showing any actual coercion.
Having said that the plaintiffs have standing, the court moves on to the 1st Amendment claims, and in a move not surprising given what’s said above, suggests that they’re legit. But does so in a weird way. After first running through the various precedents regarding jawboning, including the very recent 9th Circuit ruling that said government flagging content to Twitter is not coercive, Judge Doughty says the Biden administration’s public statements, which included no actual threats or hints at threats, were coercive!
Here, Plaintiffs have clearly alleged that Defendants attempted to convince social-media companies to censor certain viewpoints. For example, Plaintiffs allege that Psaki demanded the censorship of the “Disinformation Dozen” and publicly demanded faster censorship of “harmful posts” on Facebook. Further, the Complaint alleges threats, some thinly veiled and some blatant, made by Defendants in an attempt to effectuate its censorship program. One such alleged threat is that the Surgeon General issued a formal “Request for Information” to social-media platforms as an implied threat of future regulation to pressure them to increase censorship. Another alleged threat is the DHS’s publishing of repeated terrorism advisory bulletins indicating that “misinformation” and “disinformation” on social-media platforms are “domestic terror threats.” While not a direct threat, equating failure to comply with censorship demands as enabling acts of domestic terrorism through repeated official advisory bulletins is certainly an action social-media companies would not lightly disregard. Moreover, the Complaint contains over 100 paragraphs of allegations detailing “significant encouragement” in private (i.e., “covert”) communications between Defendants and social-media platforms.
The Complaint further alleges threats that far exceed, in both number and coercive power, the threats at issue in the above-mentioned cases. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege and link threats of official government action in the form of threats of antitrust legislation and/or enforcement and calls to amend or repeal Section 230 of the CDA with calls for more aggressive censorship and suppression of speakers and viewpoints that government officials disfavor. The Complaint even alleges, almost directly on point with the threats in Carlin and Backpage, that President Biden threatened civil liability and criminal prosecution against Mark Zuckerburg if Facebook did not increase censorship of political speech. The Court finds that the Complaint alleges significant encouragement and coercion that converts the otherwise private conduct of censorship on social media platforms into state action, and is unpersuaded by Defendants’ arguments to the contrary.
Again, at the time we noted that much of what the administration said was stupid, and they should stop their jawboning. But Judge Doughty’s reading of it as coercive seems… bizarrely wrong. I mean, if that’s accurate, then how do we judge Donald Trump’s much more aggressive threats to repeal Section 230 if social media websites didn’t moderate the way he wanted to?
The Biden Administration notes that none of their public statements about disinformation included anything anywhere near a threat, but the judge doesn’t care.
Defendants argue that Plaintiffs allege only “isolated episodes in which federal officials engaged in rhetoric about misinformation on social media platforms” and that the Complaint is “devoid” of any “enforceable threat” to “prosecute.” Further, they argue that it “is unclear how the alleged comments about amending [Section 230 of the CDA] or bringing antitrust suits could be viewed as ‘threats’ given that no Defendant could unilaterally take such actions.” The Court is unpersuaded by these arguments for several reasons. First, as explained above, any suggestion that a threat must be enforceable in order to constitute coercive state action is clearly contradicted by the overwhelming weight of authority. Moreover, the Complaint alleges that the threats became more forceful once the Biden Administrative took office and gained control of both Houses of Congress, indicating that the Defendants could take such actions with the help of political allies in Congress. Additionally, the Attorney General, a position appointed by and removable by the President, could, through the DOJ, unilaterally institute antitrust actions against social-media companies.
Again, this seems almost certainly backwards as a matter of precedent. And, if it’s accurate, I can’t wait to see how these same courts judge cases in the next GOP administration that will almost certainly go much, much further.
The ruling then gets even dumber. Despite every other court laughing away any claim that seeks to make social media companies like Twitter “state actors,” here the Court says that in this case, there is “joint action” that makes them state actors. This is again, simply wrong. It’s backwards. It’s silly. Again, the judge points to the recent 9th Circuit case that gets it right, and says “but this is different because I say so.”
Recently, in O’Handley, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found no joint action where government officials flagged certain tweets as misinformation. There, the plaintiff alleged the “conspiracy approach” to joint action which requires “the plaintiff to show a ‘meeting of the minds’ between the government and the private party to ‘violate constitutional rights.’” 2023 WL 2443073, at *7 (quoting Fonda v. Gray, 707 F.2d 435, 438 (9th Cir. 1983)). The court noted that, because the “only alleged interactions are communications between the OEC and Twitter in which the OEC flagged for Twitter’s review posts that potentially violated the company’s content-moderation policy,” the plaintiff “allege[d] no facts plausibly suggesting either that the OEC interjected itself into the company’s internal decisions to limit access to his tweets and suspend his account or that the State played any role in drafting Twitter’s Civic Integrity Policy.” Id. at *8. The court described the relationship between the state officials and Twitter as a permissible “arms-length” relationship. Id. at *8 (citing Mathis v. Pac. Gas & Elec. Co., 75 F.3d 498 (9th Cir. 1996)). For the reasons explained below, the allegations here are distinguishable from those in O’Handley.
Here, Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged joint action, entwinement, and/or that specific features of Defendants’ actions combined to create state action. For example, the Complaint alleges that “[o]nce in control of the Executive Branch, Defendants promptly capitalized on these threats by pressuring, cajoling, and openly colluding with social-media companies to actively suppress particular disfavored speakers and viewpoints on social media.” Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Dr. Fauci, other CDC officials, officials of the Census Bureau, CISA, officials at HHS, the state department, and members of the FBI actively and directly coordinated with social-media companies to push, flag, and encourage censorship of posts the Government deemed “Mis, Dis, or Malinformation.”
These allegations, unlike those in O’Handley, demonstrate more than an “arms-length” relationship. Plaintiffs allege a formal government-created system for federal officials to influence social-media censorship decisions. For example, the Complaint alleges that federal officials set up a long series of formal meetings to discuss censorship, setting up privileged reporting channels to demand censorship, and funding and establishing federal-private partnership to procure censorship of disfavored viewpoints. The Complaint clearly alleges that Defendants specifically authorized and approved the actions of the social-media companies and gives dozens of examples where Defendants dictated specific censorship decisions to social-media platforms. These allegations are a far cry from the complained-of action in O’Handley: a single message from an unidentified member of a state agency to Twitter.
I mean, basically all of that is wrong. The discussions were not coordinating “censorship.” But, among the crowd of fools that are pushing this nonsense, it’s now taken as fact. Gullible fools suckered in by their own disinformation.
There’s also a lot of complete nonsense about Section 230 in the ruling, including this:
Plaintiffs’ injuries could be redressed by enjoining Defendants from engaging in the above-discussed “other factors” that have twisted Section 230 into a catalyst for government-sponsored censorship
But that makes a huge false assumption that Section 230 has been “a catalyst for government-sponsored censorship,” which remains not shown anywhere.
The judge also makes a hop, skip, and logical mental leap, to claim that because Twitter (a private company) engaged its own private property rights to remove certain content that it felt violated its rules… this is prior restraint:
Because Plaintiffs allege that Defendants are targeting particular views taken by speakers on a specific subject, they have alleged a clear violation of the First Amendment, i.e., viewpoint discrimination. Moreover, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants, by placing bans, shadow-bans, and other forms of restrictions on Plaintiffs’ social-media accounts, are engaged in de facto prior restraints, another clear violation of the First Amendment. Thus, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged their First Amendment claims.
I mean, under this kind of ruling, any government would have massive, unchecked power to force any private property owner to host any speech they want, by publicly complaining about the content, because according to this judge, at that point, if the website chooses to moderate that speech, it must be because of state action.
The only part of the motion to dismiss that’s granted is a very narrow part requesting an injunction directly against President Biden. But everything else targeting the administration is allowed to stand. Of course, any appeal out of this court will go up to the 5th Circuit, which is somewhat famous for its motivated reasoning in cases like these. So there’s a decent chance this ruling stands.
Again, the White House never should have said what it said and shouldn’t have even suggested it was telling social media companies how to moderate. And I’m now doubly furious because if they’d just shut the fuck up, we wouldn’t have this terrible ruling on the books. But, now we do.
Of course, it’ll be fun when there’s another Trump or DeSantis administration and they find out they’re bound by the same rules, and merely commenting on content moderation choices is seen as coercive…
Filed Under: 1st amendment, biden administration, content moderation, jawboning, joe biden, louisiana, missouri, prior restraint, section 230, state action, terry doughty