Charles Johnson vs. Twitter, Inc.
Charles C. Johnson's Lawsuit filed against Twitter on January 8, 2018. The big question is what happens to free speech in the public square when it's owned by a private monopoly.
Our First Amendment forums for the exercise of our First Amendment freedoms continue to shift as technology transforms the venue and vernacular of the public forum for public expression. Our contractual assumptions and equitable expectations also vary as Americans use new technologies to enable the development of both their businesses and their ideas, which occasionally merge in the world of new media. As the public square moved to the public sidewalk, and then the public sidewalk moved to the company town, the First Amendment followed. Today, Twitter is the new company town, shifting the public sidewalks of cyberspace to its monopolized public square of the twitter feed.
Twitter induced the public to partake in its “free speech forum,” defining and describing itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party.” In order to facilitate this freedom of expression, Congress authorized immunity for ISP’s like Twitter to exclude only a circumscribed set of speech: illicit speech such as obscenity, offensive speech, harassment, and even then, Twitter could only enjoy the immunity for such speech exclusions as long as, and if, it acted voluntarily and, most importantly, in “good faith.” Twitter contractually promised, equitably assured, and publicly advertised its forum for free speech as Twitter’s entire profitability depended upon mass usage of its site as a means of public expression and participation in order to induce advertising dollars and gather marketable information about its constituent users it could then sell to potential marketers and advertisers.
In reliance thereupon, many people, like the plaintiff, depended upon, relied upon, and trusted Twitter, promoting themselves and Twitter through their use of it, bringing millions of people to Twitter through their public expression, and building up commercially marketable equity in their twitter accounts (as courts recognize in everything from business disputes to familial property law). Plaintiff Chuck Johnson is an award winning independent journalist who has written for, among others, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and National Review Online. Plaintiff specializes in investigative journalism, creating donor-funded websites that “transform journalism by empowering everyday people, experts and sources to break news and get rewarded for their effort.” Plaintiff’s websites include Gotnews.com (“Gotnews”), a news outlet that publishes his work and that of other independent journalists, and Wesearchr.com (“Wesearchr”), a site that allows users with newsworthy questions to raise crowd-funded “bounties” that encourage independent researchers to investigate and answer the user asked questions.
Then, after building equity in Twitter for himself and Twitter, Twitter summarily and suddenly, pulled the rug out from underneath people like the plaintiff, suddenly, and often without any notice, suspending their account. Plaintiff experienced this annually, with the only explanation given for the repeated suspensions and deletions of his Twitter accounts was often unidentified “objectionable” conduct. Despite multiple and myriad efforts to rebuild his Twitter account, each time as his efforts built success, Twitter summarily suspended plaintiff’s accounts. Then, in December of 2017, plaintiff discovered the truth from internal Twitter emails leaked to Buzzfeed: the plaintiff had been secretly, permanently banned from Twitter, any business associated with him had been secretly, permanently banned from Twitter, and this ban was not based on any violation of Twitter’s terms.
As internal emails disclosed, the ban was permanent, not temporary; admittedly not due to any “direct” violation of any Twitter rule; but was just a “policy” decision, e.g. a political hit job on a politically disfavored individual who had outed the bad conduct of a boyfriend of the owner of Twitter. In another twist of irony, the original source of this ban concerned the plaintiff exposing the criminal-assisting, riot-inducing, violence-welcoming conduct of a political fraud, yet it was the plaintiff who was publicly accused in its stead, in order to cover for Twitter’s intention to use the exclusion of the plaintiff from Twitter and the destruction of the equity he built for his businesses, as a model to target and discriminate against other political adversaries of the Twitter owner, and their political bedfellows.
This case will decide more than the fate of one man and one of the modern monopolies of social media. This case will decide whether Twitter can, like the monopolists before them, lie with impunity and discriminate with immunity? Or will our foundational freedoms once again protect the public from the crushing power of these modern age monopolists?