By Zachary Stieber
President Joe Biden’s administration has been hit with a class-action lawsuit over how the president and other top officials pressured Big Tech to censor users.
Lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., his group Children’s Health Defense, and Louisiana resident Connie Sampognaro brought the suit in U.S. court in Louisiana against Biden and top officials like Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and White House assistant Rob Flaherty.
The pressure the officials and their agencies brought to bear against Twitter and other Big Tech companies to crack down on alleged mis- and disinformation, including targeting Kennedy personally, violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, according to the new suit.
“It is well established that the government violates the Constitution if it uses coercive threats to induce private parties to censor protected speech or if it engages in collusive joint action with private parties to violate the First Amendment,” the suit states.
The legal action rests in part on evidence that has been uncovered by litigation in the same court brought by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri.
That lawsuit has produced documents from the government and Big Tech companies showing repeated efforts by U.S. officials to get the companies to take action against users.
The efforts paid off, with companies regularly telling officials they were working on restricting information. That included any content that purportedly discouraged vaccines even when the content was true, one Facebook employee told the White House. In some cases, though, the government itself provided misinformation that was cited to take action against users, the documents show.
The censorship efforts are “responsible even now for the online suppression of facts and opinions about the COVID vaccines that might lead people to become ‘hesitant’ about COVID vaccine mandates … depriving Americans of information and opinion on matters of the highest public importance,” the new suit states.
Kennedy was named as a top spreader of mis- and disinformation by an outside group, whose analysis was promoted by then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki from the White House. Kennedy was later banned from multiple platforms, including Instagram. Kennedy provides news analyses to followers and relies on facts and opinions for the analyses, the suit states. The bans and censorship “prevented Kennedy from knowing the number and seriousness of first-hand accounts of vaccine injuries and reporting that information to his followers,” it says.
“U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, ‘Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.’ It also violates the constitution,” Kennedy said in a statement. “The collaboration between the White House and health and intelligence agency bureaucrats to silence criticism of presidential policies is an assault on the most fundamental foundation stone of American Democracy.”
“If Government can censor its critics, there is no atrocity it cannot commit. The public has been deprived of truthful, life-and-death information over the last three years; this lawsuit aims to have government censorship end, as it must, because it is unlawful under our constitution,” added Mary Holland, president and general counsel for Children’s Health Defense, which says its aim is to “end childhood health epidemics by working aggressively to eliminate harmful exposures, hold those responsible accountable and establish safeguards to prevent future harm.”
The suit was assigned to U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, a Trump appointee who is also overseeing the other case. Doughty recently rejected the government attempt to dismiss that action.
The Census Bureau, State Department, the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and the FBI declined to comment. Other defendants, including the White House and the Department of Justice, did not respond to requests for comments.
The administration has argued before that its pressure on Big Tech companies does not “plausibly amount to coercion,” even in cases where heightened rhetoric, like when Biden said that failing to take action was “killing people,” was used.