Federal appeals court rules tech platforms can censor content

A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled that internet giants like Google and Facebook can censor content on their platforms, rebuking arguments from conservatives who claim the tech companies violate users’ First Amendment rights by removing certain messages or videos. 

With its unanimous opinion, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals became the latest court to dismiss arguments that platforms like YouTube can be sued under the First Amendment for decisions on content moderation.

“Despite YouTube’s ubiquity and its role as a public-facing platform, it remains a private forum, not a public forum subject to judicial scrutiny under the First Amendment,” Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown, a Clinton appointee, wrote in the opinion.

The three-judge panel upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss the case. 

Dennis Prager, founder of the conservative advocacy organization Prager University, first sued Google in 2017 over claims that its subsidiary YouTube was prioritizing left-leaning content over Prager U’s popular conservative videos. 

Prager U lost the case when U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh, an Obama appointee, declared that YouTube is a private company and therefore can’t be treated similarly to state actors.

Prager had sought to argue that YouTube, which has 2 billion users worldwide, functions as a “public square” because of its ubiquity. 

But on Wednesday, McKeown wrote, “YouTube does not perform a public function by inviting public discourse on its property. To characterize YouTube as a public forum would be a paradigm shift.”

Google has continued to insist that its products are not politically biased and that Prager’s claims were “meritless.” 

With increasing volume, conservatives have claimed that the major Silicon Valley tech companies are biased against right-wing voices. Top Republicans, including President Trump himself, have publicly accused the platforms of routinely censoring conservative content. 

The tech platforms have refuted all of those allegations, and there’s little evidence to suggest that any of the powerful platforms are politically biased. 

Prager U on Thursday pledged to continue fighting over their censorship concerns in court.

“As we feared, the Ninth circuit got this one wrong, and the important issue of online censorship did not get a fair shake in court,” Marissa Streit, CEO of Prager U, said in a statement. “Sadly, it appears as if even the Ninth Circuit is afraid of Goliath — Google. We’re not done fighting for free speech and we will keep pushing forward.”

Updated 5:17 P.M.

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