In a move spurred by Twitter’s decision to fact-check a pair of President Trump’s tweets, the president recently signed a multi-pronged “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship” with the claimed intention of stopping online platforms from making content moderation decisions that discriminate against particular viewpoints. The President, along with other conservative political figures and commentators, have frequently claimed that social media platforms have used content moderation practices to stifle conservative speech. The Executive Order (“EO”) evokes the First Amendment, calling online platforms the 21st century “public square,” where people go to express and debate different views, and saying the allegedly biased content moderation practices undermine that free expression.

The most controversial aspects of the order are its interpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”)—the statutory provision that shields online service providers from liability for user-generated content and the decisions they make about how to moderate that content—and its attempt to prompt the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) to adopt regulations further interpreting the law. Reform of Section 230 has been under consideration in Congress for years, with Republicans and Democrats both offering different—and mostly contrary—critiques about how online platforms have failed to act in accordance with the statute while also benefitting from the liability protections.

Other directives in the EO attempt to elicit other parts of the federal government to discipline online platforms for their content moderation practices. Absent Congressional action, the EO’s directives appear to stand on shaky legal ground and are likely to have limited legal impact.  However, the issuance of the EO alone may be unlawful, at least according to a complaint challenging the constitutionality of the EO filed with the U.S. District Court in D.C. by the Center for Democracy & Technology (“CDT”). According to the complaint, the EO violates the First Amendment, which strictly limits the government’s ability to abridge speech, by retaliating against Twitter for exercising its right to comment on the President’s statements and because it “seeks to curtail and chill the constitutionally protected speech of all online platforms and individuals” by demonstrating the government’s willingness to retaliate against those who criticize the government.


Continue Reading Section 230 Executive Order Strikes Back at Twitter, But Legal Impact Likely to be Limited

On Wednesday, May 6th, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a case concerning the scope of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) that is of great interest to businesses and communications industry practitioners. In William P. Barr et al. v. American Association of Political Consultants et al., Case No. 19-631 (2020) (“Barr”) the Supreme Court agreed to review a ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which declared a 2015 government debt collection exemption unconstitutional and severed the provision from the remainder of the 1991 TCPA. The 2015 amendment exempts calls from the TCPA’s autodialer restriction, if the call relates to the collection of debts guaranteed by the U.S. government. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will consider if: 1) the government-debt exception to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991’s automated-call restriction violates the First Amendment; and 2) whether the proper remedy for any constitutional violation is to sever the exception from the remainder of the statute.

TCPA litigation has largely focused on the autodialer restriction over the past decade. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) adopted an expansive interpretation of the restriction, which the U.S. Court of Appeals vacated and remanded in 2018. While the industry has waited for the FCC to offer further guidance, entities making calls and sending texts have navigated an environment plagued by uncertainty. Several courts of appeals have adopted conflicting interpretations of the autodialer provision. Meanwhile, the FCC could offer its interpretation at any time, throwing the issue into further litigation in all probability.  In this environment, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the constitutionality of one TCPA exemption in the Barr case. Many are hoping for a decision that goes beyond the 2015 amendment and offers definitive guidance on the autodialer provision’s scope. This post discusses what to expect – and what to watch for – in the Supreme Court’s oral argument this week.


Continue Reading TCPA In Jeopardy? US Supreme Court Reviews Constitutionality

Since its adoption, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) has periodically been attacked as unconstitutional on grounds that it violates the First Amendment right to free speech due to its content-based restrictions. Until today, those attacks have generally failed, leaving defendants with the threat of potentially crippling statutory damages. Today, the Fourth Circuit announced that part of the TCPA, an exemption for calls to collect government debts, is unconstitutional and will be stricken from the Act.

Continue Reading 4th Circuit Declares Government Debt Exemption to the TCPA Unconstitutional, But Leaves the Rest of the Statute Intact