Journalist and novelist Alex Berenson has sued Twitter for booting him off the platform over his tweets about COVID-19 vaccines.
“This case raises significant questions about private power and the state of free speech in America,” his lawyers write in a complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. “Do our laws place any limitations on Twitter’s power to discriminate against speakers -- even as it becomes the most important outlet for journalism worldwide, in part because its promises of unfettered free speech have attracted an audience of hundreds of millions of users?”
Berenson, who once worked for The New York Times, had garnered around 345,000 followers before Twitter banned him in late August. The ban came soon after he posted that vaccines don't prevent “infection” or transmission” of COVID-19, but instead should be thought of as “therapeutics with a limited efficacy window.”
He raises a host of claims in his complaint, including that Twitter violated his free speech rights.
With his suit, Berenson joins a long roster of other disgruntled social media users who claim they were “censored,” including former President Donald Trump, vaccine critic Children's Health Defense (founded by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.), and the conservative Prager University.
Trump's cases against social media companies are still pending, but judges have recently thrown out numerous other “censorship” claims against tech platforms. In those matters, judges have repeatedly said that only the government -- and not private corporations -- are bound by the First Amendment's prohibition on censorship.
Berenson attempts to counter that principle by claiming that Twitter “acted on behalf of the federal government” when it banned him soon after President Joe Biden criticized social media platforms for spreading false information about vaccines.
“The extraordinarily close nexus between the July 2021 statements by senior executive branch officials -- including President Biden himself -- calling for censorship by such companies and Twitter’s corresponding immediate actions against Mr. Berenson mean that this issue merits closer scrutiny,” his complaint states.
Other judges have rejected similar arguments. For instance, in July U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco threw out a lawsuit by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s Children's Health Defense, which claimed its First Amendment rights were violated by Facebook.
Children's Health Defense contended that Facebook began suppressing the organization's posts, and deactivated a fundraising tool, due to “coercion” by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California).
The organization noted that Facebook announced new policies aimed at cracking down on anti-vaxxers soon after Schiff blasted the company for enabling the spread of anti-vaccine propaganda on the service.
But Illston said that sequence of events doesn't prove that the government “coerced” Facebook into suppressing speech.
It's worth noting that no judge to date has said social media platforms are obligated to carry users' speech.
On the contrary, judges have rejected attempts by Texas and Florida to require platforms to host speech. Earlier this year, Texas passed a law that prohibits Twitter, Facebook and YouTube from suppressing speech based on viewpoint, and Florida passed a measure requiring large platforms to host speech by political candidates and journalists. Federal district court judges in bothstates have struck down those laws as unconstitutional, ruling that they violate social media compaines' First Amendment rights.