The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could pave the way for citizens to file First Amendment lawsuits against social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Google.
The lawsuit at the center of this case, on its surface, might not seem to have anything to do with social media. It is between the Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN), a company that operates a public-access television station in New York, and two producers who say that the company violated their rights to free speech.
But MNN believes that the implications of this case could ripple far beyond public-access T.V.
If the Supreme Court rules against them, they’ve argued, it could set a legal precedent that could allow social media users to sue any website that censors their posts.
The lawsuit that could change US law
The case that could decide the future of free speech on the internet started with nothing more than a man trying to get into public-access TV meeting.
While producer Dee Halleck filmed, Harlem poet Jesus Paopleto Melendez struggled to get into an MNN meeting, criticizing the company the whole time.
“Tyrants in our community are in control of public-access,” Melendez said, “which means the public has not access.”
When Halleck aired that video on a public-access station operated by MNN, MNN suspended her, arguing that one of the things Melendez said – that he would have wait until “somebody kills” the people in the building before they’ll let him in – counted as a threat of violence against the staff.
Halleck and Melendez hit MNN back with a lawsuit complaining that the suspension violated their First Amendment rights.
But that lawsuit wasn’t as clear-cut as it might seem. First Amendment lawsuits can’t be filed against private citizens or corporations. They can only be filed against “state actors” – or, in other words, groups acting on a government body’s behalf.
To file their lawsuit, Halleck and Melendez had to argue that MNN, as a private company running a public-access TV station, were “state actors” – and that question could have a huge impact on US law.
How public-access television affects the internet and social media
If the Supreme Court rules that MNN is a “state actor”, their attorneys have argued, every website on the internet would be classified as a “state actor” acting on the behalf of the government.
The internet, according to MNN’s argument, is as much a public service as public-access television. They argue that they, like Facebook and Twitter, are a private company operating on a public, government-created service – meaning that any ruling made about them would also affect the internet.
Some legal experts who have weighed in on the case have argued that social media companies have no reason to worry. Tax attorney Michael Pachter told CNBC that it was “extremely unlikely” that the Supreme Court would issue a ruling that uses broad enough language that it could be used against them.
The Supreme Court, however, has made it clear that they take cases like this one seriously. When a similar case was brought to the Supreme Court in 1996, the court refused to hear it, with Justice Stephen Breyer arguing that it would be “unwise” to set a precedent that could “definitively … decide whether or how to apply the public forum doctrine to leased access channels.”
This time around, they seem to be taking MNN’s suggestion that their ruling could affect social media seriously enough to hear the case. That just might mean that it’s not as far-fetched an idea as it might sound.
At this time, no date has officially been set for the case. It is the first case that the Supreme Court has taken since the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
More to the story
Dave Noriega talked about this story with special guest Chris Vanocur on KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanvoic. If you missed the show live, you can still catch everything they had to say on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast.
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