Social Media Platforms Score Another First Amendment Victory

The January 16, 2019 and April 8, 2020 Trending Law Blog posts discussed cases in which the central issue was whether private entities (i.e., the operator of a public access television station and YouTube, respectively) could be deemed “state actors” — persons acting on behalf of a governmental body – for purposes of the First Amendment. In both cases, the courts held that the First Amendment does not prohibit the private abridgement of speech. On May 27, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reached a similar decision in Freedom Watch, Inc., et al. v. Google Inc., et al.

In Freedom Watch, the plaintiffs, a conservative political interest group and political activist, alleged, among other things, that Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple “conspired to suppress conservative political views and violated the First Amendment.” The court of appeals rejected this claim, finding the plaintiffs did not adequately allege that the defendants could violate the First Amendment. The court stated:

In general, the First Amendment “prohibits only governmental abridgement of speech.” Manhattan Cmty. Access Corp. v. Halleck,139 S.Ct. 1921, 1928 (2019). Freedom Watch contends that, because the [Defendants] provide an important forum for speech, they are engaged in state action. But, under Halleck, “a private entity who provides a forum for speech is not transformed by that fact alone into a state actor.” Id. at 1930. Freedom Watch fails to point to additional facts indicating that these [Defendants] are engaged in state action and thus fails to state a viable First Amendment claim.

Although the court of appeals did not elaborate on what additional facts could have been alleged to establish that a private entity can be deemed a state actor for purposes of the First Amendment, the court did implicitly suggest that such facts could be alleged.

It remains to be seen when a court might hold that private entities can be sued for First Amendment violations, but, for now at least, that day has not yet arrived.

* * * * * * *            

For any question relating to this article, please contact Robert B. Nussbaum, Esq. at Saiber LLC.