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Court Shreds Censorship Claims of Hate Groups

A federal judge has tossed out a lawsuit from anti-Muslim groups that tried to blame the U.S. attorney general for the online censorship of their social-media posts.

WASHINGTON (CN) - A federal judge has tossed out a lawsuit from anti-Muslim groups that tried to blame the U.S. attorney general for the online censorship of their social-media posts.

The groups, American Freedom Defense Initiative and Jihad Watch, claimed in a lawsuit this past July that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were censoring their posts critical of Islam. Rather than suing the companies directly, however, the groups took aim at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Calling the law unconstitutional under the First Amendment, the groups sought an injunction to prevent U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch from enforcing it.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg dismissed the suit on Nov. 9.

"As the attorney general has no enforcement authority, such an injunction would be meaningless," the 11-page ruling states.

"It would not constrain Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube from invoking § 230 as a defense to any state-law discrimination or censorship action brought against them by plaintiffs, nor would it restore plaintiffs’ removed content or legally prevent the social-media platforms from deleting or otherwise editing Plaintiffs’ content in the future," Boasberg added.

The request for declaratory relief fell flat as well.

"At most, such a declaration might somehow indirectly affect the behavior of the social-media companies as to Plaintiffs’ content - but that, again, is a wholly speculative proposition," Boasberg wrote.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act allows websites to enforce their own terms of service and shields social-media platforms and bloggers from lawsuits over user-generated content.

But attorneys for the challengers with the American Freedom Law Center said the law allows the government to rubber-stamp censorship.

“Section 230 confers broad powers of censorship upon Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube officials, who can silence constitutionally protected speech and engage in discriminatory business practices with impunity by virtue of this power conferred by the federal government in violation of the First Amendment,” the center said in a July statement about its lawsuit.

A representative for the center has not returned a request for comment on the ruling.

Prior to filing this lawsuit, the American Freedom Defense Initiative gained notoriety for launching advertising campaigns on public-transit systems across the country that depict all Muslims as terrorists.

The Southern Law Poverty Center notes that AFDI president Pamela Geller “is the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead.”

As for Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch, the SLPC calls him “one of America’s most prolific and vociferous anti-Muslim propagandists."

Jihad Watch propagates the idea that Islamic jihadists are attempting to destroy Western societies - and also China, Russia and India - by imposing Islamic law.

The group’s director is unrelated to alt-right icon Richard Spencer, the Anti-Defamation League called a "symbol of the new white supremacy." The Southern Poverty Law Center calls this Richard Spencer "a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis."

In their July complaint, the AFDI and Jihad Watch accused private social-media companies of suppressing free speech because government-sanctioned discriminatory censorship had allowed them to characterize some of their content as hate speech, which violated the companies' community standards.

Judge Boasberg concluded last week, however, that the relief the groups requested "is not fairly traceable to the attorney general, nor is it likely to be redressed by the relief sought.”

Section 230 "does not grant the attorney general any power to impose criminal or civil liability, nor to direct or forbid interactive computer services to take any particular action vis-à-vis third party users, including deleting objectionable content," the ruling continues.

"Indeed, § 230 affords defendant no role - enforcement or otherwise - of any kind, nor does it delegate any enforcement role to any federal agency or federal official."

According to the ruling, the lack of Lynch's enforcement authority was "fatal" to their efforts.

"If plaintiffs remain unhappy with the companies’ content decisions, they can sue them and attempt to defeat any § 230 defense that is raised - e.g., by invoking the same constitutional arguments offered here,” the ruling continues. “How such litigation might fare is, of course, beyond this court’s power to divine."

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