UPDATED: Former U.S. president Donald Trump — evidently still furious about getting kicked off social media platforms over his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — on Wednesday filed class-action lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and Google and the companies’ CEOs.
The lawsuits against the three companies and their chief execs — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai — seek class-action status on behalf of other individuals who have been banned by the “corrupt regimes” of the tech companies that he claims have engaged in “censorship,” according to Trump, speaking at a press conference Wednesday morning at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J.
Trump said he will be the lead plaintiff in the class-action suit. “We’re demanding an end to the shadow-banning, a stop to the silencing, a stop to the blacklisting, banishing and canceling that you know so well,” he said during the press conference, which was livestreamed on right-leaning video platform Rumble.
“From the very beginning of our nation, freedom of speech has always been understood as a bedrock of our liberty and our strength,” Trump said. “No one should have the power to take that right away.”
Trump alleged that actions by Facebook, Twitter and Google were “unconstitutional,” but this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the U.S. Constitution actually says. The First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting free speech and does not apply to private companies.
Critics called the suits a PR and fundraising stunt by Trump. Shortly after the announcement, Trump-affiliated groups sent followers appeals for cash donations.
“This is not a lawsuit. It’s a fundraising grift,” Evan Greer, director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, said in a statement. “While it’s silly to pretend that the moderation decisions of Big Tech don’t have a significant impact on free expression, the First Amendment enables private platforms to make exactly the kind of moderation decisions they wish to make as non-government entities.”
At the press conference, one of Trump’s lawyers said the lawsuits will posit that Facebook, Twitter and Google are actually “government actors,” and that they are therefore bound by the First Amendment’s prohibition against abridging freedom of speech. The companies’ status “rises beyond that of a private company to that of a state actor,” according to the Trump legal complaints, because Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have worked directly with official federal parties to “censor free speech.” One example cited in the suits was the platforms’ crackdown on misinformation about claims that hydroxychloroquine could help treat COVID-19; a National Institutes of Health clinical trial last year formally concluded that the drug provides “no clinical benefit to hospitalized patients.”
The lawsuits were filed July 7 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The suits demand that the internet companies immediately restore Trump’s accounts (and those of other class members); remove any warning labels on content posted by Trump and other members of the class; and seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages against Facebook, Google and Twitter.
Twitter and Facebook declined to comment. Reps for Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It’s unclear whether Trump has a legal leg to stand on. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, internet companies have legal protections for content shared on their services and are allowed to moderate posts and user accounts as they see fit. Last week, a federal judge blocked Florida’s new law that would have prohibited social media platforms from suspending politicians’ accounts, saying the measure violated the First Amendment.
Meanwhile, a report from NYU researchers released earlier this year found that platforms like Twitter and Facebook are not systematically biased against conservatives or right-wing viewpoints in their content moderation practices.
Trump, who is notoriously litigious, is filing the lawsuit with the backing of the America First Policy Institute, a pro-Trump think tank led by Linda McMahon and Brooke Rollins (who were officials in the ex-president’s administration). The America First Policy Institute on Wednesday launched a new site, the Constitutional Litigation Partnership, to promote the lawsuits and encourage visitors to “share your story about Big Tech censorship.”
“America is under threat from ideologies that are eroding our founding principles. The American way of life, including federalism, free speech, and the rule of law, is being undermined and distorted by Big Government, Big Tech and Big Media,” the AFPI says on the new site.
Trump, the only U.S. president to have been impeached twice, was broadly deplatformed by internet companies after he encouraged and expressed support for rioters storming the Capitol building on Jan. 6 in an attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The attack left five people dead.
On Jan. 7, Facebook indefinitely froze Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts with Zuckerberg citing the risk of ongoing violence if the then-president were allowed to remain on the services. Last month, Facebook said Trump’s accounts on its platforms will be suspended until at least January 2023 and will only be reinstated “if conditions permit.” Twitter banned Trump permanently on Jan. 8 for the same reasons; YouTube on Jan. 12 determined that Trump’s channel violated the site’s policy against inciting violence and has indefinitely suspended his account. Other internet services have taken similar actions.
After Trump’s exit from the White House, the real estate mogul and former TV reality-show host launched a blog to share his commentary before it was shut down about a month ago. His personal website continues to host a “news” section with Trump’s statements on various topics, including his ongoing lies about voting fraud in the 2020 election.
At the press conference, Trump was noncommittal about whether he would resume his use of Twitter, Facebook or YouTube if he’s allowed back on those platforms. “I don’t know. I might not,” he said, adding, “If I put out a press release, I’m getting extremely good pickup.”
Trump also said he has no intention of settling the case out of court, and that he expects the litigation to continue past the 2024 elections.