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WASHINGTON — On Thursday, Free Press joined Common Cause, Maplight, Rock the Vote and Voto Latino as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s May 28 executive order that seeks to punish social-media companies for fact checking the president’s online posts.

The administration’s order was in direct response to Twitter adding a factual correction to one of the president’s tweets about mail-in voting. The order threatens online platforms with a loss of liability protections, among other ramifications, should they fact check Trump’s statements.  

Those protections stem from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that generally shields social-media platforms and other websites from liability for the material their users post online. In doing so,  the law also protects platforms’ ability to moderate content on their websites as those sites themselves see fit. Free Press has repeatedly warned against many recent congressional and FCC efforts to eradicate or undermine Section 230’s vital online-speech protections.

In the court complaint filed today, the five organizations state that Trump’s executive order — which effectively encourages the spread of harmful disinformation about voting rights, racial-justice protests, COVID-19 treatment and other vital issues — flies in the face of these groups’ missions. The order  would require Free Press and the other groups to divert scarce resources to combat the dangerous spread of disinformation.

“Online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (all targeted by name in the executive order) have First Amendment rights to ensure that accurate information—including about how to register to vote and successfully cast a ballot by Election Day—is not undermined by misinformation on their platforms,” the plaintiffs state in the complaint (available here).

Plaintiffs are represented in their suit by legal counsel at Protect Democracy, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Cooley LLP.

Free Press Vice President of Policy and General Counsel Matt Wood made the following statement:

“Censorship is when the government tries to silence people — especially those the government disagrees with. President Trump’s preposterous executive order on social media gets it entirely backwards, claiming that private parties are censoring him. He’s simply trying to bully into silence Twitter and any other social-media site that attempts to correct his lies and disinformation. This is exactly the kind of abuse of power that the Constitution and the First Amendment were written to prevent.

“Preserving Section 230 is key to preserving free expression on the internet, and to making it free for all — not just for the privileged few or for the president’s pronouncements. Section 230 lowers barriers for people to post their ideas online, but it also makes possible the content-moderation choices that platforms have the right to make. It is plainly illegal for this administration to threaten that law’s protections in retaliation for fact checks and other contextualizing remarks made by the private platforms that Trump abuses.

“Trump’s authoritarian actions are shameful and, as our lawsuit makes clear, they violate the First Amendment rights of online platforms to curate content as they see fit. The order also infringes on the rights of organizations like Free Press to receive information that corrects or contextualizes inaccurate and harmful statements.

“Constantly correcting the record, calling out harmful hate speech and combating official propaganda comes at a cost to social-justice organizations like ours. Trump’s executive order is yet another dictatorial action from a president who abuses the power of his office to intimidate and silence media companies, journalists, activists and anyone else who criticizes or corrects him.”

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