Thursday, Oct 6, 2022

First Amendment Lawsuit Blows Lid Off Alleged Government Censorship Campaign

In what is shaping up as a landmark First Amendment case, a noted civil rights organization has joined a lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana against the Biden Administration that has blown the lid off of what they allege is a wide-ranging campaign of government censorship.

The lawsuit by New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA), Missouri’s Eric Schmitt, and Louisiana’s Jeff Landry, has found “scores of federal officials across at least eleven federal agencies” secretly instructing social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to censor and suppress private speech that federal officials disfavor,” a statement from the attorneys said.

This group of silenced individuals ranges from doctors and scientists, to the owner of a conservative radio show with tens of thousands of followers, to rank and file Americans who dare to voice a dissenting opinion in the public sphere that conflicts with the government narrative.

The topics subjected to censorship include information-sharing about the pandemic, vaccine injury updates and posts about election integrity and security that the government would prefer Americans do not hear about.

Social media platforms have increasingly become the modern “public square” where a large portion of the American public goes for information. Scrubbing these sites of content challenging government-approved viewpoints has thus kept a great many Americans from a balanced understanding of some of the most burning issues of the day.

The agencies named by the lawsuit who have engaged in this covert but far-reaching censorship include the White House, HHS, DHS, CISA, CDC and NIAID. Also identified as defendants are the Census Bureau, the FDA, the FBI, the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

The NCLA joined the lawsuit after a federal judge in the Western District of Louisiana granted expedited discovery in the case. Federal agencies were then subpoenaed with requests for “all communications with any social media platform relating to content modulation and/or misinformation from Jan. 1, 2020, to the present.” Similar subpoenas were issued by the plaintiffs to social media companies.

The Wisdom of the Great Barrington Declaration

The topics covered by the subpoenas included all correspondence related to the pandemic and specifically, the Great Barrington Declaration. This was an open letter published in October 2020 by renowned physicians who recommended “focused protection” of the elderly and those at high risk, as opposed to the total, across-the-board lockdowns being mandated by the government.

The Great Barrington letter challenged lockdowns as futile, dangerous and harmful for younger people who are at very low risk of infection. It also explained the importance of natural immunity from Covid infection as a robust form of protection equal to vaccination.

“Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health,” the open letter said. “The results (to name a few) include worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden.

“Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice,” it added.

The declaration also predicted, that “Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.”

“These internationally renowned experts had crucial insights to share on the flawed reasoning and science underlying lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates,” NCLA attorney Jenin Younes said in a statement. “The government’s sweeping campaign to suppress their perspectives, and the views of others like them, represents the most severe abrogation of the First Amendment in modern times.”

Silencing The Experts

Dr. Bhattacharya, a Professor of Health Policy at Stanford University, stated in his affidavit that he faced de-boosting and outright removal of posts concerning his publication of The Great Barrington Declaration, which to date has been signed by almost 100,000 medical professionals.

The de-platforming of the Declaration occurred after an email from former NIH Director Francis Collins to Dr. Anthony Fauci—recently released by federal Judge Terry Doughty’s court order–that insisted on an immediate counterattack.

“There needs to be a quick and devastating published takedown of the premises [behind the Declaration.] Is it underway?” Collins wrote to Fauci.

Bhattacharya also participated in a roundtable discussion with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis about the reasons children should not be masked during Covid-19. YouTube lost no time in removing the video of the roundtable.

Dr. Martin Kulldorff, an epidemiologist and former Professor of Medicine at Harvard University, as well as a former member of the CDC Vaccine Safety Subgroup, stated in his declaration that as co-author with Dr. Bhattacharya of The Great Barrington Declaration and a participant in the DeSantis-led Covid roundtable, he too faced censorship on his social media accounts.

The two physicians later espoused the position that forcing a Covid-recovered person with natural immunity to take a vaccine that provides virtually no benefit, while risking adverse effects, is not rational. They were then permanently banned from LinkedIn and other social media accounts.

In August, more than a year later, the CDC did a quiet about-face, acknowledging the long-recognized science of natural immunity.

“Covid-19 prevention recommendations no longer differentiate based on a person’s vaccination status,” the CDC website now advises, offering no apology to the thousands who lost their jobs and livelihoods and were ostracized over the refusal to take a shot they did not need.

The CDC’s reversal came after several lawsuits were brought by NCLA against government-mandated vaccines or quarantine policies. In each lawsuit, plaintiffs argued that given their scientifically demonstrated natural immunity, the government could not deny their rights to decline medical treatment, by forcing them to be vaccinated or punishing them for refusing.

“It is a scandal of the first order that it took CDC more than a year to admit the science around natural immunity. Worse, it appears CDC knew the science but deliberately misled the American people in order to wield unlawful administrative power,” said attorney Jenin Younes of NCLA.

“Congress never gave CDC rulemaking authority, yet federal courts bowed down to CDC guidance like it was holy writ,” said Philip Hamburger, chairman of the NCLA Board. “Never again should black-robed judges stand by while white-coated bureaucrats trample individual liberties in the name of compliance.”

Released Documents Expose ‘Sprawling Censorship Regime’ 

The documents released by government agencies in response to the court order for expedited discovery include a trove of emails and memos from federal agencies to social media giants and vice versa. They expose the Biden Administration directing Big Tech to censor content regarding the pandemic and election-related posts that run counter to government-approved positions.

Legal discovery revealed the “massive extent of the government’s involvement in silencing Americans,” NCLA lawyer Younes said in an interview on Administrative Static. “This sprawling federal censorship regime should shock the conscience of Americans.”

“Communications across multiple federal agencies reveal that the federal government, under the Biden administration, has exerted tremendous pressure on social-media companies—pressure to which companies have repeatedly bowed,” the NCLA detailed in a press release.

The censorship came in many forms, including permanent and temporary suspension of accounts, as well as total and partial banning, shadow-banning which requires viewers to click-through warning labels, de-platforming (taking down content), and limiting the spread of content through various devices.

Censorship also included “de-monetizing”—cutting off revenue streams to disfavored publications.

Communications from administration officials to social media CEOs included threats of legal action if the platforms did not comply, NCLA attorneys said.

‘Exert Maximal Pressure’

The 711-page lawsuit cites multiple in-house texts from Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Jen Easterly, asserting that “federal officials are fully aware” that they need to exert “maximal pressure,” preferably from the White House, to get social media companies to expand censorship.

Easterly discussed how to “get us in a place where Fed can work with [social media] platforms to better understand the misinformation/disinformation trends so relevant agencies can try to pre-bunk/debunk as useful.”

Unsatisfied with the cooperation the feds were getting from some social media companies, Easterly wrote: “Platforms have got to get more comfortable with gov’t. It’s really interesting how hesitant they remain.”

Despite Easterly’s grumbling about Big Tech’s hesitation, released documents show that social media platforms, acting at the federal government’s behest, overwhelmingly complied” with its directives, said NCLA attorney Mark Chenowith on Administrative Static.

“Even those of us familiar with what the administration was doing were surprised by the scope and the reach of the censorship campaign,” he said. “It was wildly successful.”

Released text messages from the CISA director open a window on how federal officials approached the task of suppressing content they didn’t like. Easterly sought “to play a coordinating role so not every [official] is independently reaching out to platforms” with their own idea of what and how to censor. That would lead to “chaos,” she said.

Apparently with an eye toward the recommended coordination, the CDC invited “all tech platforms” into their meetings, to discuss an orderly system that would guide the companies in suppressing speech that ran counter to government-approved narratives.

“Under the First Amendment, the federal government may not police private speech nor pick winners and losers in the marketplace of ideas. But that is precisely what the government has done—and is still doing—on a massive scale not previously divulged, NCLA said in its release.

Experts Called In to Manage Censorship Campaign

Indicating the elaborate lengths the censorship campaign went to, emails were discovered from “a strategic communications and marketing firm,” called Reingold who sent consultants to manage the government’s collaboration with social media companies to censor speech, NCLA attorneys said.

In several communications, a Reingold executive discussed which government agencies’ emails should be linked to a special portal set up by social media companies to flag and censor speech. These were connected to the CDC and the Census Bureau websites, as indicated in the following email:

“I hope you had a good weekend,” the Reingold email begins. “I’m following up about the partner support portal enrollment for CDC. Does the Twitter account need to be connected to a cdc.gov email or is any account fine? Also, would there be any issues or complications stemming from flagging Covid misinformation on the portal using the existing census.gov accounts that you have access to?”

“We will want to have at least some CDC accounts whitelisted,” the consultant added, “but a backup may be helpful in the short-term.”

“The documents show the government clearly orchestrating a sophisticated censorship operation behind the scenes. The federal government is deciding whose voices and ideas may be heard, and whose must be silenced,” attorney Mark Chenowith of NCLA said.

“This insidious censorship, which strikes at the heart of what the First Amendment was designed to protect—free speech, especially political speech—constitutes unlawful government action.”

Big Tech Points a Finger

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, identified 32 federal officials who were involved in censorship requests on the platform, while Twitter disclosed nine officials, and YouTube eleven.

Communications did not only travel from the government to the platforms. Court papers reveal that social media executives were anxious to curry favor with White House officials by proving their compliance with censorship demands as the following emails testify.

After President Joe Biden claimed, in July 2021, that Facebook was “killing people,” Meta reached out to the Surgeon General to “engage in damage control and appease the President’s wrath,” the NCLA states, quoting from the Meta email.

A Meta executive reported back to the government shortly afterward, saying, “I wanted to make sure you saw the steps we took just this past week to adjust policies on what we are removing with respect to misinformation, as well as steps taken to further address the ‘Disinfo Dozen’ (12 individuals considered responsible by the White House for the majority of ‘disinformation’ posts.)

“We removed 17 additional Pages, Groups, and Instagram accounts tied to the Disinfo Dozen…” the Meta executive went on to report. [See Sidebar]

According to emails obtained by the plaintiffs, the posts that were to be censored included information about vaccine refusal, particularly posts from members of the military. “Vaccine refusal appeared in two main contexts in highly engaged (widely read) posts –military vaccine refusals and consequences for refusing the vaccine,” one email said.

According to the lawsuit, the censors targeted servicemen who were simply sharing their own stories and experiences. “News and reports of severe vaccine side effects included both firsthand and secondhand reports, with users sharing photos and video related to their own experiences to educate the public,” the court brief said.

“Freedom of speech is the very bedrock of this great nation, and needs to be protected,” the lawsuit said. “The federal government’s alleged attempts to collude with social media companies to censor free speech should terrify all Americans alike.”

The NCLA noted in a statement that during the discovery process of this lawsuit, “the government has been uncooperative and has resisted complying with the court’s discovery order every step of the way—especially with regard to Anthony Fauci’s communications.”

“More discovery is needed to uncover the full extent of this regime—i.e., the identities of other White House and agency officials involved and the nature and content of their communications with social-media companies,” the attorney said.

 

*****

Facebook Folds

Documents released in the Discovery stage of the NCLA lawsuit show that in August 2021, Facebook announced that it had taken action against the so-called “Disinformation Dozen.” This was shortly after a watchdog group singled out twelve people and argued that they were responsible for a majority of coronavirus misinformation.

In making the announcement, Monika Bickert, vice president of content policy at Facebook, said, “Any amount of Covid-19 vaccine misinformation that violates our policies is too much. We have therefore removed over three dozen Pages, Groups and Facebook or Instagram accounts linked to these 12 people for violating our policies.”

According to a CNN report, Bickert added that Facebook had “also imposed penalties on nearly two dozen additional Pages, Groups or Accounts linked to these 12 people” and “applied penalties to some of their website domains.”

The “Disinformation Dozen” were initially identified in March by the Center for Countering Digital Hate which called on Facebook to shut down pages operated by “those people.” Labeling all dissent as hate/ misinformation/disinformation appears to be a common tactic used by this group.

The White House seized on that report and turned up the heat on Facebook for allowing the people identified in the report to remain on its platform, reported CNN.

“There’s about 12 people who are producing 65% of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at the time. She told reporters that the administration was in regular contact with social media platforms and was focused on “getting them to step up enforcement.”

In the meantime, a White House spokesperson continued to lambast the social media company. “In the middle of a pandemic, Facebook still refuses to be straightforward about how much misinformation is circulating — and being actively promoted — on their platform,” the spokesperson, who was not named, complained to CNN.

“It’s on everyone to get this right so we can make sure the American people are getting accurate information to protect the health of themselves and their loved ones — which is why the Administration will continue to push media outlets, and leading sources of information like Facebook to meet those basic expectations,” the spokesperson asserted.

‘The Disinformation Dozen’ Respond

People who were branded “disinformation spreaders” by the White House and social media have hailed the lawsuit by Attorneys General Eric Schmitt of Missouri and Jeff Landry of Louisiana. For them, the newly released documents showing coordination between Big Tech and President Joe Biden’s administration are an important step in combating the suppression of free speech.

“As one of the Disinformation Dozen, I am thrilled to see that both Eric Schmitt and Jeffrey Landry of Louisiana have had the courage to take a stand against the well-orchestrated censorship that has attempted to silence me, my colleagues and, quite frankly, hundreds of others. It is about time,” Dr. Christiane Northrup, an obstetrician-gynecologist, told The Epoch Times.

Schmitt and Landry, both Republican attorney generals, have brought the lawsuit against the administration for alleged violations of the First Amendment in pressuring social media companies to censor users. The documents came as a result of Discovery in the litigation, which was subsequently joined by the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA).

The documents also showed that over 50 administration officials and 11 agencies were involved in the censorship effort, regularly pressuring Facebook, Twitter, and Google to take action.

‘Shocking’

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chairman of Children’s Health Defense and maligned as one of the so-called “Disinformation Dozen,” said the documents surprised him.

“I’m astonished that any elected Democrat would be so estranged from our nation’s history and values as to consider it acceptable for a president to pressure publishers to censor his critics,” Kennedy told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement.

“It’s shocking that a U.S. president would involve the FBI and Homeland Security in efforts to quash dissent. The framers placed the right of free expression in the First Amendment precisely to guarantee Americans our sacred right to criticize our government. And they included no pandemic exception in the Constitution.”

Kevin Jenkins, co-chair of the Zelenko Freedom Foundation, another person branded as one of the “Disinformation Dozen,” welcomed the release of the documents. “The truth is continuing to surface every day, he told the Epoch Times. “This important lawsuit gives us a voice as we continue to battle for the soul of the country,” he said.

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