Missouri and Louisiana v. Biden, et al.., No. 3:22-cv-01213-TAD-KDM (W.D. La.). Complaint filed May 5, 2022.
Missouri and Louisiana Attorney Generals, claiming injury to state constitutional interests and to state citizens’ speech freedoms, have filed a complaint against President Biden and multiple executive officials and federal agency heads, asserting that the Biden administration has colluded with technology platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter in order to suppress and censor information unfavorable to federal government aims. The recent creation of a bureaucratic governing board to manage removal of disfavored speech only advances these unconstitutional practices, the state plaintiffs say.
Plaintiffs seek declaratory relief declaring the administration’s actions violate the First Amendment as well as injunctive relief forbidding further unconstitutional activity.
The First Amendment serves as the cornerstone of the free exchange of ideas of information, without which competent self governance is impossible, the states say. The federal government is constrained by the First Amendment from interfering with the guaranteed freedoms embodied in the First Amendment, including speech freedoms. The government cannot escape its obligation to refrain from inhibiting speech by engaging private entities to censor speech.
Although the First Amendment does not ordinarily reach private actors, acts undertaken at the behest of or in collusion with the government may violate the First Amendment. This is particularly so, the plaintiffs state, where the federal government has coerced private entities to cooperate with the government by means of threats of antitrust proceedings or revocation of immunities enjoyed under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Truncating the flow of information to suit federal officials’ aims impairs states in protecting the interests of state citizens, particularly where state constitutions may secure more expansive speech protections that the United States Constitution, plaintiffs claim.
The Complaint filed on May 5 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana details instances in which, either directly or in collusion with technology platforms, federal officials have acted to suppress speech, serving their own political ends to the injury and detriment of the public, frequently cloaking their actions as attempts to guard against undefined and opaque “disinformation.”
Threats of antitrust actions or threats of loss of immunities have ensured technology companies’ compliance with federal officials’ dictates. The adoption of facially private governing documents and policies that in fact are employed to serve the government, and which may operate in collusion with the government, cannot be interposed to shield either private or public actors from liability for suppressing and chilling speech.
An atmosphere of intimidation pervades social media sites, plaintiffs observe. Undertaken in fear of or in collusion with federal officials, the private companies’ practices of banning, shadow banning, limiting publication, and outright removal of social media account holders create unconstitutional prior restraints, chilling participation lest a similar fate ensue.
The state plaintiffs’ Complaint provides a chronicle of activity asserted to constitute First Amendment violations. If true, the plaintiffs’ allegations paint a picture of a government intent on serving its ends and not those of the public they were elected or appointed to serve. Digital media fail to behave as an ‘electronic public square’ where those media represent an unparalleled “concentrated control” of speech. Complaint, para. 53, citing Knight First Amendment Institute, 141 S. Ct. 1220, 1221 (2021).
Federal officials have conferred with private digital platforms to advise the platforms about content that ought to be flagged for removal, plaintiffs state.
Online platforms accomplish speech monitoring by means such as mechanical algorithms or outright speech suppression by permanent banishment of disfavored speakers, the plaintiffs offer, thereby denying the exiled any ability to communicate publicly. Such measures not infrequently censor core political speech, to the detriment of political opponents and to the benefit of those directing the private companies’ actions.
Examples of digital platforms’ interference with First Amendment speech guarantees, undertaken to please or to appease federal officials have included suppression of information about location of the President’s son’s laptop, said to contain damaging information, on the eve of the Presidential election.
Plaintiffs aver that open discussion of the origins of the Covid-19 virus was precluded where, by agreement with a social media platform, a federal official who had been engaged in funding gain of function research abroad provided messaging favoring a government narrative which insulated the government and the official from review.
Relevant evidence that would permit public evaluation of the efficacy of face masks and government edicts demanding home confinement was also suppressed, plaintiffs submit.
The promotion of narratives favoring voting by mail, a methodology traditionally dismissed as inviting voter fraud, has also been alleged to involve social media.
Both the Executive and the Legislative branches have threatened technology companies directly and publicly, at times demanding removal of political opponents’ statements.
The recent creation of a board to govern “disinformation” is an Orwellian measure intended to withhold content from the public and to insulate the federal government from criticism, plaintiffs insist. This has been done notwithstanding that there exists a constitutional guarantee of free speech, such guarantee not to be interfered with by curating and removing from public discourse that which disfavors the government.
Similarly dystopian, plaintiffs observe, is the view that speech is not speech but infrastructure, and thus susceptible of government regulation and oversight. To this has been added the opinion that the public reacts emotionally and thoughtlessly to speech, and that speech is linked to violence, requiring online policing to protect the public. One legislator has suggested that the public lacks the capacity to discern fact from fiction, a circumstance not to be addressed by providing more information, but instead, in the view of current federal officials, less information or none at all.
These activities, whether singularly or in combination, violate the First Amendment and severely damage public discourse, the plaintiffs say, causing sufficient danger to open discourse as to merit an injunction against further constitutional violations.