JULY 7, 2021
Former President Donald Trump sued Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and their chief executives, raising the stakes in his battle against social media giants who have blocked him.
Billing the effort during a Wednesday press conference as a move to defend First Amendment rights, Trump filed three separate class-action lawsuits in federal court in Florida against the tech giants and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai.
The lawsuits seek court orders to restore his social-media accounts, along with punitive damages, to ensure other users can’t be banned or flagged by the tech giants. The legal team is being led by John P. Coale, a trial attorney involved in lawsuits against big tobacco companies.
“We’re going to hold big tech very accountable,” Trump said during the press conference at his Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in New Jersey. “If they can do it to me, they can do it to anyone.”
Twitter permanently banned Trump in January for his role in stoking the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 in a deadly riot to stop the counting of Electoral College votes for President Joe Biden. Facebook last month said Trump would remain suspended from its networks for at least two years, with the possibility of being reinstated in 2023 if risk to public safety has subsided.
YouTube, Google’s giant video service, also froze Trump’s account following the Jan. 6 riot. The former president’s videos are still accessible, but he isn’t permitted to post new videos. Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s chief executive, has said that the company will reverse its policy when it decides that the “risk of violence has decreased,” without providing details.
Facebook, Google and Twitter declined to comment on the suits, which were criticized by tech-funded advocacy groups. NetChoice, whose members include Amazon and other tech companies, said the action shows a “deliberate misunderstanding of the First Amendment” and is without merit.
“President Trump has no case,” NetChoice CEO Steve DelBianco said in a release. “The First Amendment is designed to protect the media from the President, not the other way around.”
The Computer & Communications Industry Association, whose members include Facebook, Twitter and Google, said in a statement that digital services have the right to enforce their terms of service and “frivolous class action litigation will not change the fact that users — even U.S. presidents — have to abide by the rules they agreed to.
Twitter shares were down 1.5% at 2:00 p.m. in New York trading, while Facebook slipped 0.5% and Google was up less than 1%.
Trump and the Republican National Committee began blasting fundraising solicitations almost immediately, including one appeal seeking donations “to show your support for President Trump’s lawsuit against Big Tech.”
Trump is seeking to overturn a federal law that shields internet companies from liability for content posted by users. Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act protects social media platforms from lawsuits accusing them of unfairly removing posts or accounts, among other legal challenges. The First Amendment prohibits the government from forcing tech companies to leave up or take down certain categories of posts.
The companies are private and therefore not subject to First Amendment claims from users and have liability protections under Section 230. But in his lawsuits, Trump is arguing that the tech giants worked with the government to censor Americans and thus are “state actors” who can be sued.
The banishment of Trump by major tech platforms reignited Republican calls to revoke the legal shield, arguing that it has enabled social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to censor conservative viewpoints.
The lawsuits aren’t the first time Trump has taken aim at Section 230. While in office, he tried to get Congress to repeal it by threatening to veto a Defense Department spending bill. Democrats have also proposed bills to curtail the legal shield to encourage tech companies to more aggressively rid their platforms of bigotry, abuse, and harassment.
Tech companies have largely resisted changes to the law, fearing that the proliferation of lawsuits will force them to clamp down on the free-flowing user-generated content. However, both Zuckerberg and Dorsey have expressed openness in recent months to Section 230 reforms.
Without access to the broad reach afforded by social media giants, Trump has struggled to maintain an online presence. He shut down his blog-like “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump,” though he frequently sends out several press statements a day — often targeting fellow Republicans he believes are insufficiently loyal.
Trump recently stepped up his public activity by restarting rallies and making a trip to the southern U.S. border last week to criticize Biden’s immigration policies. He’s backing candidates in the 2022 midterm elections and actively opposing others. He has also held out the prospect of running again for president in 2024.
The former president has been teasing that he’ll launch a new platform that can’t remove him. He said on Dave Rubin’s “Rubin Report” podcast on June 25 that “there’s a lot of platforms out there, that’s what we’re looking at, getting the right platform, a perfect platform, and I think you’ll see something fairly soon.”
During his presidency, Trump used Twitter for everything from insulting rivals to major policy announcements, and he relied on Facebook especially to raise money from small-dollar donors.
A Florida law that was supposed to go into effect July 1 prohibiting social media platforms from suspending the accounts of political candidates was blocked by a federal judge. Likening the state’s law to “burning the house to roast a pig,” U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee said the legislation passed by a Republican legislature and a priority of Governor Ron DeSantis, violates the companies’ free speech rights.
The cases are: Trump et al v Twitter Inc et al, 21-cv-22441, Trump et al v Facebook Inc et al, 21-cv-22440, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida (Miami) and Trump et al v YouTube LLC et al, 21-cv-61384, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida (Ft. Lauderdale).