Donald Trump held a press conference on Wednesday to announce class action claims against Facebook, Twitter and Google, along with their CEOs, after the companies suspended or banned his accounts following the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“I’m filing, as the lead class representative, a major class-action lawsuit against the big tech giants, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter, as well as their CEOs Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsey, three real nice guys,” Trump said from his golf club in Bedminster, NJ.
Trump’s megaphone reach has been considerably stifled since he’s been sidelined from the major platforms, but he’s used their actions to make his case that they are biased against voices on the right.
Fox News carried Trump’s announcement, but broke away before it ended, while MSNBC and CNN were on other stories.
In the Facebook lawsuit, Trump contends that he was banned “using non-existent or broad, vague or ever shifting standards,” and accuses the company of prior restraint against him and other proposed class members.
The lawsuit claims that Facebook has “also mounted an aggressive campaign of censorship against a multitude of Putative Class Members through censorship (flagging, shadow banning, etc.) resulting from legislative coercion.”
Facebook suspended Trump from the platform in the wake of the insurrection, citing violations of its community standards, which prohibit praise or support of people engaged in violence. Although the Facebook oversight board found fault with the company’s imposition of an “indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension,” it still upheld the action. Facebook later reviewed the decision and determined that his account should be sidelined until at least Jan. 7, 2023.
The Trump lawsuit takes aim in part at Section 230, the portion of a 1996 law that provides legal immunity for the way that tech platforms moderate third party content on their site. It contends that this is an “unconstitutional delegation of authority to regulate free speech,” and that under pressure from Congress, Facebook can “impose a prior restraint on the protected political speech of a sitting President of the United States.” The lawsuit claims that “Democrat legislators in Congress” exerted “overt coercion” to compel the platform to “censor” views.
The lawsuit contends that Section 230 is unconstitutional in that “it has interpreted to immunize social media companies for action they take to censor constitutionally protected speech.”
Legal analysts quickly dismissed the lawsuit as a gimmick.
“‘Congress shall make no law…Trump and his lawyers need to read the first line of the First Amendment. His lawsuit complaining of censorship against private social media companies and their leaders is going nowhere,” wrote Barbara McQuade, a professor at University of Michigan Law School and a legal analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.
The lawsuit argues that Facebook’s reliance on Section 230 makes it a “state actor,” the heart of Trump’s claim that tech giants are violating the First Amendment. Yet the lawsuit seeks a declaration that Section 230 is unconstitutional.
Other scholars have weighed in on the issue in recent months, concluding that while there is a concern over the power of social media companies, courts have interpreted the First Amendment as not extending to a prohibition on a private actor barring certain types of speech.
Soon after announcing the lawsuit, fundraising appeals began, with a Trump PAC making the pitch to donors.
Trump’s appearance as a champion of the First Amendment also is selective. He has repeatedly called for revising libel laws to make it easier for plaintiffs to sue news outlets, and during his term he repeatedly referred to the mainstream media as the “enemy of the people.”
Trump is the lead plaintiff in the case, but he’s joined by other plaintiffs in the Facebook action, including Elizabeth Albert, Kiyan and Bobby Michael and Jennifer Horton. They all claim that their accounts were suspended or flagged, including warnings about posting disinformation about Covid-19.
Facebook and Twitter spokespersons said that they had no comment. A Google rep did not immediately return a request for comment.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, a reinstatement of Trump’s account and that of other class members, among other things. The lead counsel in the case is John P. Coale, a well-known and longtime Washington trial lawyer who has represented class action clients in lawsuits against the tobacco companies and Union Carbide. He’s married to Greta Van Susteren, the news personalities who now hosts Gray TV’s Full Court Press.
Trump sought to revise Section 230 after Twitter began to put fact check labels on some of his tweets in May, 2020. Although the FCC started the process of reviewing the provision, Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election changed the dynamics, leaving the agency with a 2-2 split and a pending Democratic majority.