January 13, 2021 | From The Wall Street Journal
Facebook and Twitter banned President Trump and numerous supporters after last week’s disgraceful Capitol riot, and Google, Apple and Amazon blocked Twitter alternative Parler—all based on claims of “incitement to violence” and “hate speech.” . . .
Conventional wisdom holds that technology companies are free to regulate content because they are private, and the First Amendment protects only against government censorship. That view is wrong: Google, Facebook and Twitter should be treated as state actors under existing legal doctrines. Using a combination of statutory inducements and regulatory threats, Congress has co-opted Silicon Valley to do through the back door what government cannot directly accomplish under the Constitution.
It is “axiomatic,” the Supreme Court held in Norwood v. Harrison (1973), that the government “may not induce, encourage or promote private persons to accomplish what it is constitutionally forbidden to accomplish.” That’s what Congress did by enacting Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which not only permits tech companies to censor constitutionally protected speech but immunizes them from liability if they do so. . . .
In Railway Employees’ Department v. Hanson (1956), they found state action in private union-employer closed-shop agreements—which force all employees to join the union—because Congress had passed a statute immunizing such agreements from liability under state law. In Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives Association(1989), the court again found state action in private-party conduct—drug tests for company employees—because federal regulations immunized railroads from liability if they conducted those tests. In both cases, as with Section 230, the federal government didn’t mandate anything; it merely pre-empted state law, protecting certain private parties from lawsuits if they engaged in the conduct Congress was promoting.
Section 230 is the carrot, and there’s also a stick: Congressional Democrats have repeatedly made explicit threats to social-media giants if they failed to censor speech those lawmakers disfavored. In April 2019, Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond warned Facebook and Google that they had “better” restrict what he and his colleagues saw as harmful content or face regulation: “We’re going to make it swift, we’re going to make it strong, and we’re going to hold them very accountable.” . . .
In September 2019, the day before another congressional grilling was to begin, Facebook announced important new restrictions on “hate speech.” It’s no accident that big tech took its most aggressive steps against Mr. Trump just as Democrats were poised to take control of the White House and Senate. Prominent Democrats promptly voiced approval of big tech’s actions, which Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal expressly attributed to “a shift in the political winds.” . . .
Either Section 230 or congressional pressure alone might be sufficient to create state action. The combination surely is. Suppose a Republican Congress enacted a statute giving legal immunity to any private party that obstructs access to abortion clinics. Suppose further that Republican congressmen explicitly threatened private companies with punitive laws if they fail to act against abortion clinics. . . .
Facebook and Twitter probably wouldn’t have become behemoths without Section 230, but repealing the statute now may simply further empower those companies, which are better able than smaller competitors to withstand liability. The right answer is for courts to recognize what lawmakers did: suck the air out of the Constitution by dispatching big tech to do what they can’t. . . .
The breach of the Capitol is a stain on American history, and Silicon Valley seized on the attack to do what Congress couldn’t by suppressing the kind of political speech the First Amendment was designed to protect.
There’s more at stake than free speech. Suppression of dissent breeds terror. The answer to last week’s horror should be to open more channels of dialogue, not to close them off. If disaffected Americans no longer have an outlet to be heard, the siege of Capitol Hill will look like a friendly parley compared with what’s to come. . . .
Users who say Facebook, Twitter and Google are violating their constitutional rights are right. Aggrieved plaintiffs should sue these companies now to protect the voice of every American—and our constitutional democracy.
(Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal. Article by and