WeChat and TikTok Win Preliminary Injunctions Against Trump Administration’s Efforts to Ban the Apps

The June 10, 2020 Trending Law Blog post discussed President Donald Trump’s plan to strongly regulate or close down certain social media platforms and the Executive Order he issued on May 28, 2020 to accomplish that goal. Thereafter, on August 6, 2020, President Trump issued two additional Executive Orders – Executive Order 13942 (to address “the threat” posed by the social networking service TikTok) and Executive Order 13943 (to address “the threat” posed by the messaging, social media and mobile payment app WeChat). The legality of both of the Executive Orders were successfully challenged in two district courts with preliminary injunctions being granted by two judges to enjoin the implementation, in part, of the two Executive Orders.

Continue reading

Third Circuit Upholds Public School Student’s First Amendment Rights

On June 30, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued its opinion in B.L. v. Mahanoy Area School District, a precedential decision in which the Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision holding that a school district had violated a student’s First Amendment rights by suspending her from the school’s junior varsity cheerleading squad as a result of a Snapchat post which the school deemed in violation of school and team rules. The student’s social media post was made off school grounds, after school hours and without school resources.

Microphone in front of audience.

In reaching its decision, the Third Circuit found that the student’s speech was entitled to First Amendment protection despite a very “narrow exception” which limits students’ free speech rights when the speech “interferes with the rights of other students to be secure and to be let alone.” Opinion at 9. The court was persuaded to rule in the student’s favor because her speech took place away from campus (at a local store), over the weekend (on a Saturday), without school resources (she used her cellphone), and was shared “on a social media platform unaffiliated with the school” (Snapchat). Opinion at 15.

Continue reading

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.

Filmmakers and Others Take on the U.S. Government Over Social Media Surveillance

On May 31, 2019, the United States Department of State implemented new registration rules which required visa applicants to disclose all of their social media identifiers, including anonymous ones, which they used during the five years prior to their application on twenty social media platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, and several foreign social media sites. The requirements also applied to people already living in the United States who applied for new visas.

On December 15, 2019, plaintiffs (the Doc Society, a non-profit organization which supports documentary filmmakers, and the International Documentary Association, a non-profit of association of documentary filmmakers) filed suit against Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad F. Wolf, seeking (1) a declaration that the registration requirements violated the Administrative Procedures Act and the First Amendment, (2) an injunction to prohibit enforcement of the registration requirements, and (3) an order expunging all information collected to date as a result of the registration requirements.

The government filed a motion on April 15, 2020 to dismiss the action for lack of jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim and the plaintiffs opposed the motion on May 27. Several amicus curiae briefs were filed in opposition to the motion on behalf of, among others, Twitter, Reddit, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The government filed its reply papers on June 10, 2020 and a decision on the motion is expected soon.

Regardless though of how the district court rules on the motion, it is highly likely that an appeal will follow in this important challenge which pits the plaintiffs’ civil liberty rights against the government’s social media surveillance practices in the name of national security.

* * * * * * *

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

The President Goes on the Offensive Against Social Media Platforms

On May 26, 2020, for the very first time, the social networking service Twitter added a label to two tweets by President Donald Trump which refuted the President’s claims about voter fraud in California. Several days later, Twitter permitted a tweet by the President about protests in Minneapolis to remain accessible with another label stating that the tweet “violated Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.”

The President quickly responded with a series of tweets which claimed that Twitter’s fact-checking of him “was interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election,” that “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH” and that he, as president, “will not allow it to happen,” and, referring to major social media platforms, stated that “We will strongly regulate, or close them down.”

Continue reading

A First Amendment Win for YouTube!

Image of censored stampThe January 16, 2019 post – Will Social Media Websites Become State Actors? – wondered how the U.S. Supreme Court would rule in Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, a case in which the Court was asked to consider whether the mere hosting of speech by others could transform a private entity into a “state actor” for purposes of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court answered this question on June 17, 2019, holding that the First Amendment “prohibits only governmental abridgement of speech . . . [and] does not prohibit private abridgement of speech.” 139 S.Ct. 1921, 1928 (2019). The Court also held that “merely hosting speech by others . . . does not transform private entities into state actors subject to the First Amendment.” Id. at 1930.

Continue reading

AFFIRMED: President Trump Cannot Block Critics on Twitter

Donald_Trump_Official_PortraitThe June 14, 2018 post “The President May Not Block Twitter Followers Because They Disagree With Him Politically” reported how, in the decision of the District Court in Knight First Amendment Inst. at Columbia University v. Trump, 302 F.Supp.3d 541 (S.D.N.Y. 2018), the court found that the President’s decision to block certain social media users from accessing his Twitter account was unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. On July 9, 2019 a unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed.

Continue reading

Appeals Courts Consider Whether Elected Officials Can Block Critics on Social Media

Law App IconOn March 26, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard oral argument in Knight First Amendment Inst. at Columbia University v. Trump, No. 18-1691 (2d Cir.), a case which will decide whether President Donald Trump can block people from seeing what he posts on Twitter.  (See Trending Law Blog, June 14, 2018).

Although the Second Circuit has not yet issued its decision, in a similar case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled on January 7, 2019 that the Chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors – an elected official – violated the First Amendment when she temporarily blocked a constituent on Facebook.  See Davidson v. Randall, No. 17-2002 (4th Cir. Jan. 7, 2019).  In the unanimous decision of the Fourth Circuit, the court held that elected officials may not block critics on social media accounts used for official business.

Continue reading

Will Social Media Websites Become State Actors?

Image of censored stampIn Schulman v. Facebook.com, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 183110 (D.N.J. 2017), a federal district court in New Jersey dismissed a plaintiff’s lawsuit claiming that various media defendants censored his political speech on Facebook in violation of his constitutional rights.  The court held that “All of Plaintiff’s constitutional claims against all Defendants fail as a matter of law because Plaintiff fails to allege that Defendants are state actors” and the U.S. Constitution “only applies to governmental actors – and does not apply to private parties.”  A federal court in California reached a similar decision in Prager Univ. v. Google, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51000 (N.D. Cal. 2018).

Continue reading

The First Amendment and Social Media

Microphone in front of audience.The U.S. Supreme Court referred to its decision in Packingham v. North Carolina, 137 S. Ct. 1730 (2017) as one of the first cases “this Court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern internet.” In the case, the Court, citing the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, struck down as unconstitutional a North Carolina statute that made it a felony for a registered sex offender to use social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter. The Court also made several significant statements about social media and free speech.

The Supreme Court initially noted that “a fundamental principle of the First Amendment is that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen, and then, after reflection, speak and listen once more.” With regard to social media, the Court noted that although users of websites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn “engage in a wide array of protected First Amendment activities,” the First Amendment does permit states to “enact specific, narrowly tailored laws” that could limit a person’s use of social media. However, the Court also held that a state could not enact a broad law which would “foreclose access to social media altogether” and prevent a user from engaging in “the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.”

Continue reading