Prager University v. Google LLC f/k/a Google Inc. and YouTube, LLC, No. 18-15712.  February 26, 2020.


Like the universe, the internet and its multiple platforms appear to be ever-expanding, even as the law of this new domain runs to catch up with novel features and equally novel claims.  The development of largely open online platforms upon which all and sundry may present their ideas, including their video recordings, gave rise to this suit. Prager University (“PragerU”), an informational resource which is not a true university, presents video discussions about politically conservative ideas.   

PragerU has objected to YouTube’s classification of its content as subject to YouTube’s “restricted” setting and to YouTube’s concomitant limitation on some of PragerU’s advertising.  The “restricted” setting is a user driven device which permits filtering content that some may see as objectionable. YouTube manages the classifications of content. Content providers who object to YouTube’s restricted classification may appeal, but the factors involved in classification and the reasons for decisions remain internal to YouTube.

PragerU has argued that YouTube is subject to the First Amendment because YouTube acts as an electronic public square.  Much as with traditional public squares, speech must be on a come one, come all basis, without hindrance by the platform provider. As such, PragerU has insisted, YouTube’s limitations on the visibility of PragerU’s content violate its First Amendment rights.

Not so, says a panel of Ninth Circuit justices, relying on an observation from the Supreme Court’s last term that the mere hosting of another’s speech will not make a private entity public.  Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, 139 S. Ct. 1921, 1930 (2019).  

The First Amendment constrains only the government.  PragerU’s argument that YouTube has assumed a traditionally and exclusively governmental function falls far short of the mark. Inviting the public to avail itself of private property will not make a private property holder a state actor.  Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner, 407 U.S. 551, 569 (1972).  

Unlike the government, which is forbidden by the First Amendment from interfering in citizens’ speech, a private entity may do as it pleases, notwithstanding that its choices may at times displease.  

The panel also rejected PragerU’s assertion that YouTube’s terms of use constituted false advertising in violation of the Lanham Act.  If this were so, the court observed, any agreement could be transformed into marketing material.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit refused to recognize any binding effect to YouTube’s public pronouncement that it aspires to uphold First Amendment principles.  Notwithstanding its legal tone, this statement was mere opinion.  More importantly, there is no “opt-in” feature that would allow a private actor to become a state actor by force of its own will.

JustLawful prognostication:  This decision will not end this matter.  There is simply too much speech at stake and too few platforms of YouTube’s scope to think otherwise.  This is not to suggest that the Ninth Circuit is incorrect, but that further exploration of these issues is expected.  This is particularly so where, as the Ninth Circuit noted, both parties offered that were the court to rule against them, the sky would surely fall (Slip. Op., pp. 13-14).  

Prager University v. Google 9th Cir. February 26 2020

 

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