Former President Donald Trump has filed proposed class action lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter, and Google subsidiary YouTube as well as CEOs Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai. The lawsuits come six months after Trump was permanently or temporarily suspended from all three platforms.
Trump announced the lawsuits at a press conference today, following an early report by Axios. He referred to the cases as “a very important game-changer for our country.”
However, the claims are based on an amalgamation of mostly untested or disregarded legal arguments, and they come after numerous other failed attempts to sue social media companies over suspensions or other forms of moderation.
The complaints allege that social media companies violated the First Amendment by suspending Trump and other users from their networks, an argument that courts have typically disregarded — ruling overwhelmingly that the First Amendment is intended to limit censorship by the government, not private companies. His effort is backed by the America First Policy Institute, an advocacy group founded by former Trump officials, including Linda McMahon and Brooke Rollins.
Trump’s lawsuits seek damages on behalf of any users who have had an account “wrongly restricted or curtailed” on Facebook, Twitter, or a Google service. It asks courts to declare Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act unconstitutional. Trump paradoxically cited Section 230 as a legal justification for suing the companies in his press conference, however, saying incorrectly that “once they got Section 230 they’re not private companies.”
The claim also seemingly challenges the premise of social media terms of service agreements — complaining that Facebook, for instance, “expressly conditioned” usage on agreeing to “speech restrictions imposed by Facebook.”
Twitter and Facebook declined to comment on the lawsuit. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump described the class action as an attempt to stop companies from violating US speech laws. “We’re not looking for a settlement. We don’t expect a settlement,” Trump said in response to a question during the press conference, suggesting that companies could be liable for “potentially trillions of dollars” in damages, “a number the likes of which nobody’s ever seen before.”
This appears unlikely. On Twitter, attorney and legal writer Eric Goldman cited an upcoming paper that found courts almost invariably side with web platforms when users sue for being banned. Judges have thrown out not only suits from conservative users, but also ones that allege discrimination based on protected classes — as in a recently dismissed lawsuit against Google, which some Black creators accused of suppressing or demonetizing videos about race. Users have prevailed in rare cases where censorship is done not by platforms, but by government agencies and politicians using them, including Trump himself.
Trump’s new lawsuits are far more elaborate — and often confusing — than many of these claims. The suits suggest Facebook, Twitter, and Google became state actors not only because they own powerful platforms for hosting speech, but also because members of Congress called them into hearings and urged them to remove specific categories of content, including false information and incitement to violence. (Trump was banned from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for violating rules against incitement during the January 6th riot that sought to nullify President Joe Biden’s election.) There is no legal precedent for using this common practice — which the suits refer to as “legislative coercion” — as a justification for punishing companies themselves.
Trump also accuses the platforms of “closely coordinated interaction ... to constrain free speech” with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the press conference, Trump appeared to cite an email thread between Zuckerberg and Fauci from March 2020, which was during Trump’s own presidency.
Judges have almost universally rejected claims that social media platforms are public spaces that must host any content protected by the First Amendment. While Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has pushed for more direct regulation of how companies can moderate, he did so in a case that was effectively unrelated to the issue.
Trump clashed with social media companies well before he was banned from them this year. As president, he signed an executive order asking federal agencies to reduce Section 230’s protections, but the order had little effect and was revoked by President Joe Biden a year later.
In the press conference, Trump equivocated on whether he would actually return to Facebook, Twitter, and Google should they rescind their bans. “I don’t know. I might not,” he said. “If I put out a press release, I’m getting extremely good pickup.” Trump launched a blog to distribute announcements in May but shut it down within a month after attracting a reportedly low readership.