Jared Taylor, founder of white nationalist publication American Renaissance, can proceed with a lawsuit against Twitter. Taylor sued Twitter in February, alleging that the company had violated civil rights and contract law by banning two of his accounts. Yesterday, California judge Harold Kahn narrowed the suit’s potential scope, but he said that Twitter hadn’t made a strong enough argument for throwing it out altogether.
Twitter argued that Taylor’s complaint violated California’s anti-SLAPP law, which penalizes malicious lawsuits meant to suppress speech. Taylor wants a court to make Twitter reinstate his accounts and stop enforcing a rule that lets it ban any user for any reason, which Twitter argues is akin to controlling which stories a newspaper prints.
But Taylor took advantage of an exception for lawsuits brought in the public interest — and Kahn agreed that the case fit that bill. “It seems to me this is a classic public interest lawsuit,” he said, according to court transcripts. “It goes to the heart of free speech principles that long precede our constitution.” While Kahn didn’t specifically mention it, Taylor is one of several people who have sued digital platforms for alleged ideological bias, and the claim is widespread enough to have generated a congressional hearing.
Kahn was also sympathetic to Taylor’s claim that Twitter had misled the public by saying its platform was open to everyone, then allegedly banning people based on their political viewpoints. (In Taylor’s case, this would be the viewpoint that white people must maintain control over the United States, and that “when blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western Civilization — any kind of civilization — disappears.”) Twitter at one point described itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” but last year it changed its rules to prohibit accounts affiliated with hate groups. The company declined to comment on Taylor’s suit.
Some of the suit’s complaints were still dismissed; at this point, Taylor is just arguing that Twitter violated California’s Unfair Competition Law with misleading statements and an unconscionably restrictive banning policy. Even so, this limited win contrasts with another recent legal ruling, where a judge dismissed writer Charles C. Johnson’s claim that Twitter had suppressed his free speech rights.
Santa Clara University High Tech Law Institute co-director Eric Goldman, who wrote about Johnson’s lawsuit earlier this week, is skeptical of Kahn’s argument. “This ruling flies in the face of substantial contrary precedent,” including the Johnson decision, he tells The Verge. “Twitter’s contract has been upheld in dozens of cases.” In theory, Kahn’s favorable decision could make it easier for anyone to argue that their malicious suit is in the public interest. But Goldman says the ruling conflicts with so many other decisions that it doesn’t set a clear precedent.
If Taylor or any other banned Twitter user won a lawsuit with these claims — which Goldman stresses isn’t likely — a court still wouldn’t necessarily make Twitter restore their accounts. “They might be entitled to damages,” Goldman says, if Twitter violated the Unfair Competition Law. “But it’s not clear to me that they can force Twitter to carry their content.”
So despite Taylor’s hyperbolic claim that this is “the first time censorship by a social media platform … has been found actionable under state or federal law,” nobody has come close to ruling that Twitter should be legally treated like a public service where everyone is guaranteed an account. (It doesn’t have to be a “neutral platform,” either.) It can still ban all the Nazis — or de-Nazified white nationalists — it wants.
Update 5:40PM ET: Updated with response from Twitter.