Trump Sued Over Bid to Change Social Media Liability Rules

President Donald Trump holds up a copy of the New York Post as he speaks last week before signing an executive order aimed at curbing protections for social media giants. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Calling the action a fundamental intrusion on free speech rights, an internet advocacy group filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday challenging President Donald Trump’s executive order that seeks to change liability rules for social media companies.

In a 27-page lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Tuesday, the Center for Democracy and Technology challenges Trump’s order as a violation of “well-established First Amendment principles.”

Trump signed the order last week, shortly after Twitter added a fact check flag to two of the president’s tweets.

The group says the action goes around Congress and threatens to stifle speech on the internet, all in retaliation for what Trump saw as a slight from Twitter.

“First, the order is plainly retaliatory: it attacks a private company, Twitter, for exercising its First Amendment right to comment on the president’s statements,” the complaint states. “Second, and more fundamentally, the order seeks to curtail and chill the constitutionally protected speech of all online platforms and individuals — by demonstrating the willingness to use government authority to retaliate against those who criticize the government.”

At the core of the order is a directive seeking to reinterpret a key section of the Communications Decency Act to open social media companies up to liability for the content that appears on their websites.

As it currently exists, section 230 of that law makes it so internet service providers and platforms that host content online cannot be held liable for what third parties post on their websites, while still allowing them to conduct moderation.

The provision has come under fire from some Trump allies who claim social media companies have hidden behind the protections while stifling conservative voices online. Some Democrats, including presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, have also taken on section 230 as helping insulate social media companies from responsibility for misinformation spreading online.

But the section of the law has been a critical underpinning to the modern internet, as experts have warned that without its protections, companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube would likely face too much legal liability to function as they currently do.

Legal experts have also raised doubts about whether Trump can make the changes he seeks from the Oval Office without legislation from Congress. 

The Center for Democracy and Technology argues the order will force internet companies to rework their moderation policies in line with what the administration views as appropriate and could lead to widespread disinformation on the platforms after they pull back on moderation out of fear of government retaliation.

“The effect of the order will be to reduce Americans’ ability to speak freely online and access the wide range of information and views that are available today,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction preventing Trump or other government officials from implementing the order.

“The government cannot and should not force online intermediaries into moderating speech according to the president’s whims,” said Center for Democracy and Technology President and CEO Alexandra Givens in a statement. “Blocking this order is crucial for protecting freedom of speech and continuing important work to ensure the integrity of the 2020 election.”

The group is represented by Andrew Pincus with the Washington firm Mayer Brown.

The White House did not immediately return a request for comment on the lawsuit.

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