The mention of government censorship or state-run media often brings to mind oppressive regimes and images like Nazi-style book burnings, Soviet propaganda, or China’s regulated media. One might even think of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s dystopia 1984. It is a concept that has long been associated with repressive regimes, and yet, in the United States, a class action lawsuit is accusing top-ranking US officials of waging a systematic campaign to censor social media in collusion with Facebook, Google (YouTube), and Twitter.
The allegations are particularly striking given the United States has the third-largest social media audience in the world. More than 80% of Americans use social media to access news and other information, meaning that these platforms have become, in the words of the United States Supreme Court’s opinion in Packingham v. North Carolina (2017), “the modern public square.”
The class action lawsuit, filed on behalf of American consumers of news on social media platforms, alleges that “top-ranking officials” from “every level of the government” worked strategically with social media platforms like Facebook, Google (YouTube), and Twitter to censor the voices of the American people and to restrict everyday Americans’ access to news and opinions, including verifiably accurate information.
Assuming social media is the modern public square, Americans are entitled to certain First Amendment protections from government censorship of protected speech within that square, even if the government uses private entities, like social media giants Facebook, Google, and Twitter, to do it.
The plaintiff’s argument rests on the Norwood principle of constitutional law from Norwood v. Harrison (1973), which affirms that government actors cannot use private parties to evade prohibitions in the Bill of Rights. The case has been filed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He is joined by Children’s Health Defense (CHD), and Connie Sampognaro, against President Biden, Dr. Anthony Fauci, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, CDC, and numerous other, lesser-known federal employees in the FBI, CIA, DOJ, and Department of Homeland Security. The lawsuit alleges that the government has violated the Norwood principle by pressuring social media platforms to censor constitutionally protected speech, such as criticism of government officials and policies.
The suit alleges that beginning in early 2020 and continuing today, government officials have “waged a systematic, concerted campaign, astonishing in its breadth and effectiveness, to “induce, encourage, and promote” the nation’s “three largest social-media platforms to censor constitutionally protected speech.”
The plaintiffs cite considerable evidence from the “Twitter files” released by Elon Musk, other lawsuits, public statements, and various news reports of collusive partnerships between federal agents and agencies and social media companies “to stifle viewpoints that the government disfavors, to suppress facts that the government does not want the public to hear, and to silence specific speakers—in every case critics of federal policy—whom the government has targeted by name.” If the allegations are true, it would mean that the US government has engaged in some of the most extensive censorship of speech in the country’s history.
Among the topics allegedly suppressed and targeted by the government for censorship were the lab-leak theory of COVID’s origins, the Hunter Biden laptop story, and the presidential election of 2020. Criticism of President Biden was also targeted for silencing, along with “stories of true vaccine side effects” because they could contribute to vaccine “hesitancy.”
Kennedy and his legal team were named Trial Team of the Year in 2018 by the National Trial Lawyers Association after they won a $289 million jury verdict against Monsanto for knowingly selling cancer-causing weed-killer products.
The lawsuit is not seeking monetary damages, but requests a nationwide injunction against, what they call, the “gravest threats to free speech this country has ever faced.”
As history has shown, government-sponsored suppression of speech is usually done in the name of safety for its citizens, an attempt to stop “dangerous” sources of influence, perceived threats, and criticism of the ruling party. The lawsuit raises important questions about the limits of government power in the digital age and the extent to which social media platforms can be used to silence dissenting voices and control public discourse.
This kind of control was on display when Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels kicked-off book burning in 1933 with a speech advocating for “decency and morality.” Stalin extensively revised film and art to promote socialist ideals and rid the Soviet Union of publications critical of the regime. Today, Chinese citizens who condemn the authoritarian tactics of the Chinese Communist Party find themselves arrested and tried in secret for their online disapproval of the government. Silencing political dissent in any era has one outcome, and it is one which Americans rightly fear.
If what this suit alleges proves true, it is difficult to imagine how different our nation might look at present if 80% of Americans had unadulterated access to the censored information of the last three years. The extent to which American beliefs and behavior may have been influenced by the federal government’s interference with public discourse is almost inconceivable.
However, in the words of Hellen Keller, whose books were burned by Nazi sympathizers in Germany, “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas.” As this lawsuit moves forward, it remains to be seen whether the US government will succeed in killing ideas or whether the people’s right to free speech will prevail in this instance.
Catalyst articles by Jessica Wilkinson