Meta on Tuesday defeated a lawsuit by a Florida resident who claimed his First Amendment rights were violated when Facebook placed warning labels on his posts about COVID-19.
In a 10-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer in the Northern District of California essentially said the allegations in the complaint, even if proven true, would not show that Facebook violated the First Amendment, because Facebook isn't the government.
The decision is in line with a series of other rulings by district court judges who dismissed lawsuits against tech companies over their content moderation policies, including their policies relating to COVID-19.
For example, Facebook last year defeated a lawsuit brought by Children's Health Defense, which claimed the company censored posts that were skeptical of vaccines, while Twitter prevailed in a similar lawsuit by vaccine critic Colleen Huber. (Huber and Children's Health Defense have appealed those decisions to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.)
This latest ruling stems from a class-action complaint filed last year by Richard Rogalinski, who said Facebook flagged at least three of his posts about the pandemic as either misleading or false. For example, he alleged that a June 13 post -- consisting of a screenshot of a tweet that included the assertion, “hydroxychloroquine worked this whole time” -- was tagged by Facebook as “false information.”
Meta urged Breyer to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the First Amendment doesn't restrict private companies' editorial decisions.
“The First Amendment prohibits only governmental restrictions of speech, and Meta is not a governmental actor,” the company wrote in a motion filed in June. “Rather, Meta is a private company and the editorial decisions it made about Plaintiff’s COVID-19 comments are Meta’s, not the government’s.”
Rogalinski countered that by asserting that Facebook should be considered a state actor, or equivalent to the government, on the theory that company and Biden administration worked together to suppress posts. He specifically referenced former press secretary Jen Psaki's comments that the administration was “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread misinformation.”
Breyer rejected that argument for several reasons, including that the allegations in the complaint “strongly suggest that Meta’s decisions were entirely its own.”
The judge added that the government can work with a private company “without converting that entity’s later decisions into state action.”