New York’s Social Media Censorship Law Is Illegal, New Lawsuit Charges

New York’s Social Media Censorship Law Is Illegal, New Lawsuit Charges
New York Attorney General Letitia James speaks in New York City on Sept. 21, 2022. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber

Social media platform Rumble is suing New York over a law set to take effect on Dec. 3, alleging it’s illegal.

The measure requires platforms to “provide and maintain mechanisms for reporting hateful conduct on their platform,” and empowers New York’s attorney general to assess a fine of up to $1,000 per day on platforms that do not comply.

The law “hangs like the Sword of Damocles over a broad swath of online services (such as websites and apps), threatening to drop if they do not properly address speech that expresses certain state-disfavored viewpoints, as the state now mandates they must,” says Rumble’s 48-page complaint, filed this week in federal court in New York.

“In something of a First Amendment ‘double whammy,’ the Online Hate Speech Law burdens the publication of disfavored but protected speech through unconstitutionally compelled speech—forcing online services to single out ‘hate speech’ with a dedicated policy, a mandatory report & response mechanism, and obligatory direct replies to each report,” it adds.

Rumble and co-plaintiffs Locals Technology and Eugene Volokh want the court to declare the law in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments, which protect free speech and due process. They want a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law as well as attorneys’ fees and costs.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat and the only named defendant, did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Lack of Oversight’

The Democrat-controlled legislature passed the bill in June and Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, signed it into law soon after.

James has indicated she will enforce the law.

In October, she said in a statement that platforms should be held accountable for “hateful conduct” due to “lack of oversight, transparency, and accountability of these platforms allows hateful and extremist views to proliferate online.”

The statement came as James and Hochul released a report on the role of platforms in the mass shooting at a Buffalo grocery store.

The report concluded that the shooter was “radicalized” by platforms, including 4chan, and prompted calls for new laws on both the state and federal level.

“Today I met with the victims’ families to share the findings of this report. This report is further proof that online radicalization and extremism is a serious threat to our communities, especially communities of color. We saw this happen in Christchurch, Charlottesville, El Paso, and Buffalo, and we cannot wait for another tragedy before we take action,” James said at the time.

“Online platforms should be held accountable for allowing hateful and dangerous content to spread on their platforms. Extremist content is flourishing online, and we must all work together to confront this crisis and protect our children and communities.”

Plaintiffs in the new case said they oppose the law.

“They seek to promote free and open debate on their platforms because they believe in the free marketplace of ideas. They publish all manner of speech and do not believe that the speech targeted by the Online Hate Speech Law should be chilled, prohibited, or removed as a result of a government edict. They do not want to parrot the state’s message or be required to reply to every complaint of alleged ‘hate speech,’” the suit says.

‘Empower’ Users

Proponents of the measure say it will make online platforms safer.

“New Yorkers know the expression ‘if you see something, say something,’ but unfortunately many social media platforms make it impossible to speak out when you see something dangerous or harmful online,” state Sen. Anna Kaplan, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, said in a statement.

“This legislation will empower social media users to keep virtual spaces safer for all by providing clear and consistent reporting mechanisms for hate speech, and misinformation about vaccines or elections, and with the problem getting worse by the day, we need to take this action right away,” she added.

But a lack of clarity on what constitutes “hate speech” means even if Rumble, Locals, and Volokh wanted to comply, they couldn’t, according to the new suit.

“The law’s title ‘Social media networks; hateful conduct prohibited’ suggests Plaintiffs must ban speech that meets state-defined hate speech. The definition’s vague terms, ‘vilify,’ ‘humiliate,’ ‘incite,’ and ‘violence,’ make it impossible for either Plaintiffs or the public to know exactly what speech constitutes ‘hateful conduct,’” the suit says.

Locals is a subscription site. Volokh is a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who runs a blog.

Plaintiffs are being represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE)

“New York’s law would open the door for the suppression of protected speech based on the complaints of activists and bullies,” Rumble Chairman and CEO Chris Pavlovski said in a statement. “Rumble will always celebrate freedom and support creative independence, so I’m delighted to work with FIRE to help protect lawful online expression.”