President Trump's attempt to regulate how Twitter, Facebook and other platforms treat speech by users violates the First Amendment, a coalition of digital rights groups and voter advocacy organizations alleges in a lawsuit filed Thursday.
The groups are seeking a declaration that Trump's recent executive order regarding social media platforms is unconstitutional, and an injunction blocking the order's implementation.
The order is “fundamentally incompatible with the First Amendment," Rock the Vote, Vote Latino, Common Cause, Free Press and Maplight say in a lawsuit brought Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
“It is unlawfully retaliatory and coercive, sending a clear and chilling message: question President Trump and face retribution from the entire Executive Branch,” the lawsuit states. The digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation represents the organizations.
In May, Trump signed an order that aims to tie web companies' protection from lawsuits based on users' speech to the companies' content moderation policies.
The order specifically directed the Commerce Department to petition the Federal Communications Commission to craft regulations that could deprive online platforms of the protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That law currently immunizes Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other websites from civil suits based on material posted by users.
The Commerce Department filed its petition last month, and the FCC is currently accepting comments on it.
Trump issued the executive order after Twitter alerted users to dubious claims relating to voter fraud in two of his tweets.
Rock the Vote and the other challengers argue the order could discourage websites from correcting misinformation -- including false information about voting.
“Online platforms will reasonably respond to the punitive, threatening measures directed by the Executive Order by rolling back their moderating functions,” the lawsuit states. “The Executive Order also will discourage online platforms from engaging in fact-checking partnerships with organizations like plaintiffs, for fear of being viewed as actively working to factcheck the President and his allies.”
The organizations add that “unchecked misinformation” posted by Trump (and others with large followings) can spread quickly.
“This creates confusion for voters, hampers education and advocacy efforts to make elections safe and accessible through procedures such as absentee voting and vote-by-mail, and undermines faith in election systems,” the groups write. “Online platforms’ moderation function is essential to correct the spread of false information, and that moderation function is protected by the First Amendment.”
The groups add: “The effect of the Executive Order--encouraging the spread of misinformation about vote-by-mail, impeding voter registration initiatives, discouraging broader access to voting, and encouraging the spread of other kinds of misinformation and harmful content--flies in the face of the critical purposes plaintiffs serve, frustrates their missions, and will require them to divert scarce resources to combat misinformation."
Earlier this year, the Center for Democracy and Technology filed a separate lawsuit challenging the order. That case is pending in federal court in Washington, D.C.