Judge Says Injury ‘Speculative’ in Trump’s Bid to Crack Down on Social Media

A federal judge expressed skepticism about interfering in President Donald Trump’s attempt to restrict social platforms after Twitter started fact-checking his posts.

Rock the Vote, Voto Latino and other nonprofits encouraging voter registration asked for a court order protecting the rights of Twitter, Facebook and other online platforms to rebut the president’s unproven claims that, among others, mail-in ballots are fraudulent.

The groups were responding to an executive order Trump issued in May that threatened to strip the platforms of liability protections and — the groups argue — muzzle their free-speech rights to comment on user posts.

It’s not clear Trump’s order “does anything” except outline a policy position, U.S. District Judge William Orrick told lawyers for the groups during a hearing Wednesday, adding that it’s not a direct regulation of the platforms. “The injury seems speculative to me, to date, and it doesn’t seem like the platforms are all that cowed by it.”

Kathleen Hartnett, a lawyer for the nonprofits, pointed to the order’s requirement that the U.S. Attorney General, working with state attorneys general, enforce laws prohibiting “unfair or deceptive acts.” Bringing law enforcement actions against the platforms for speech the president doesn’t like amounts to “real threats,” Hartnett said.

TheFederal Communications Commission announced last week it would review the liability shield for Twitter and Facebook as a new firestorm erupted over their decisions to limit the distribution of a controversial New York Post article concerning Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Twitter and Facebook said they did it because of questions about the article’s accuracy and use of hacked material.

James C. Luh, a lawyer representing the president and other federal officials, said the fight over the president’s executive order is “essentially a political disagreement” that doesn’t belong in court.

“It seems like it’s business as usual for these organizations — to counter misinformation or get out the vote,” Luh said.

Orrick suggested that Trump’s tweets discrediting mail-in voting might even energize the non-profits, helping their cause to register voters. Hartnett disagreed.

“Every second they’re spending trying to fight this misinformation online, that’s time that our clients are being diverted from their core mission,” she told the judge.

Orrick said he’d consider the arguments, and issue his final decision soon.

The case is Rock the Vote v. Trump, 20-cv-6021, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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