Former U.S. President Donald Trump has announced class-action lawsuits against three major tech companies, accusing them of wrongfully censoring him and other conservatives.
“We’re asking the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida to order an immediate halt to social media companies' illegal, shameful censorship of the American people,” said Trump on Wednesday.
Trump is the lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and Google (which owns YouTube), as well as their chief executive officers, respectively, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai, whom Trump sarcastically described as “three real nice guys.”
There has been no immediate comment from the California-based companies or their executives.
'Pivotal battle' seen
Trump, outdoors at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, predicted the legal actions “will be a pivotal battle in the defense of the First Amendment and in the end, I'm confident that we will achieve a historic victory for American freedom and, at the same time, freedom of speech.”
During the final weeks of his presidency, Twitter and Facebook banished Trump after his followers stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6. The companies cited concerns that the president’s social media posts would incite further violence.
Trump, who left office January 20 with the inauguration of Joe Biden as president, remains banned from the platforms.
The lawsuits are also “for Democrats and even progressives whose speech should be protected under the First Amendment,” said Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general, who was among several of the plaintiffs, lawyers and supporters who appeared with Trump at Wednesday’s announcement.
The former president said he had recruited “a lot of tobacco lawyers” to push the claim, including John Coale, who was a key litigator in multibillion-dollar lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers.
It's 'a stunt'
Some in the legal community and free-speech advocates were doubtful that Trump and his fellow plaintiffs would prevail.
“This lawsuit is a stunt and it's unlikely to find traction in the courts,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
“There is an important debate to be had about what kinds of obligations the First Amendment may impose on private actors that have so much influence over public discourse and about how much leeway the First Amendment gives to Congress to regulate the activities of those private actors. But this complaint is not likely to add much to that debate,” Jaffer said.
“Procedurally, it has been filed in the wrong venue. And even if the complaint had been filed correctly, it doesn't state any claim on which relief can be granted,” said Gabriel Malor, a federal litigator and writer based in Virginia. “The First Amendment protects against state action. Facebook is not a state actor, no matter how large it is and no matter how many users it excludes. So, the First Amendment doesn't provide any support for Trump's complaint.”
Included among those contending the lawsuit has no merit was the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit law and advocacy organization focused on protecting human rights and democratic principles in the digital age.
🚨 BREAKING: Trump’s new lawsuits are a cynical ploy to punish & harass tech companies that held him to account for his statements in advance of the disgraceful attack on the Capitol in January. They have no merit & his claims go against both public interest & the 1st Amendment. pic.twitter.com/A8scClpPoT— Center for Democracy & Technology (@CenDemTech) July 7, 2021
In addition, Trump is arguing that a provision of federal law (known as CDA § 230) violates the First Amendment because it protects Facebook's decision to exclude content it does not like.
'Zero chance' of success
“This is a frivolous argument. Facebook is protected by the First Amendment from being forced to publish user content it does not want to. Section 230's liability shield easily comes within that First Amendment protection. Quite simply, there is zero chance that Trump prevails in this lawsuit,” Malor predicted.
From a constitutional standpoint, the legal filings are “a joke,” according to Rebecca MacKinnon, a digital rights advocate who is the founder of Global Voices.
"Trump’s lawsuit has nothing to do with winning in court. The audience is his base. It provides a foothold for more disinformation by his supporters on Fox News and elsewhere,” said MacKinnon, author of “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.”
Trump told those at Wednesday’s event he was not looking to settle the matter before going to trial, and that even if he prevailed and the companies were ordered to restore his social media accounts, he was not sure he would use the platforms again.
Before his accounts were removed, Trump was able to instantly and directly reach tens of millions of followers. He has not been active on several new social media platforms that have attracted some of his political supporters. Instead, he has been relying on short press releases, reminiscent of his tweets, distributed via email to journalists and others, to continue to make baseless claims of victory in last year’s presidential election.
Election officials in various states, his own attorney general and numerous judges, including some that Trump appointed, have stated there is no evidence of the mass voter fraud he repeatedly alleges took place in the 2020 presidential contest.