The Biden administration began a public, coordinated campaign last May to combat dissemination of “health misinformation” related to COVID-19, especially across social media platforms.
Administration officials, including Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and President Joe Biden himself, often through White House press secretary Jen Psaki, made clear that they blame Big Tech for American deaths from the coronavirus. They insist that social media platforms have an obligation to censor those who articulate views that depart from the government’s messaging on matters related to COVID-19.
The Biden administration also stated that it supports “a robust antitrust program,” a not-so-subtle warning that if the Twitters and Facebooks of the world don’t do the U.S. government’s bidding, they will suffer the consequences.
The administration’s campaign has been increasing in intensity for nearly a year. Psaki and Murthy subsequently stated that the government is flagging problematic posts for social media platforms to censor, and commanded them to elevate the voices of those who promote the approved messaging through algorithms while banning those with different perspectives.
Biden has affirmed his belief that social media platforms “should be held accountable” for “misinformation” circulated on them. Murthy announced an initiative March 3 in which he demanded that tech companies provide the government with “sources of misinformation,” including the identity of specific individuals, by May 2.
Like many others around the world, Michael P. Senger of California, Mark Changizi of Ohio, and Daniel Kotzin of Colorado operated Twitter accounts that centered around criticizing government and public health officials for COVID-19 restrictions. All three Twitter accounts rapidly became popular.
But beginning last spring, around the time the Biden administration’s efforts became public, the three Twitter users were subject to temporary suspensions. Mere days after Murthy’s announcement, Twitter temporarily suspended Kotzin and Changizi while suspending Senger permanently.
This means Senger won’t be permitted to create another Twitter account. He lost his 112,000 followers and, in his own words, was “silenced and completely cut off” from the network he developed over two years.
According to Twitter, which had not yet been acquired by entrepreneur Elon Musk for $44 billion with a promise to champion free speech, it suspended Kotzin and Senger for spreading COVID-19 “misinformation.”
Senger, Changizi, and Kotzin had, in the cited tweets, expressed opposition to vaccine mandates and suggested that the vaccines don’t slow the spread of the virus.
The three also argued that government-imposed restrictions don’t work to mitigate viral spread; risks posed by COVID-19 to children are sufficiently low to argue against vaccination for children given long-term unknowns; and naturally acquired immunity is superior to immunity attained through vaccination.
None of these claims is outside the realm of legitimate scientific discourse. In fact, figures such as Biden and public health officials Rochelle Walensky and Anthony Fauci have been confronted with unequivocal evidence that they were wrong mere months ago in expressing absolute confidence that the vaccines stop transmission of the virus and confer better protection than naturally acquired immunity.
A meta-study out of Johns Hopkins University concluded that lockdowns did not reduce COVID-19 deaths but caused quite a bit of harm, corroborating observational data from around the world. Several Scandinavian countries recommend against vaccinating healthy young children based on an objective risk assessment, and study after study has proven that naturally acquired immunity is superior to vaccine-induced immunity.
After nearly two years of insisting that community masking is effective, many prominent public health officials have changed course. It is a great irony that those who have been so wrong throughout the pandemic now seek to silence dissenters, particularly those who have proven prescient on many topics.
And even if dissenters were expressing flatly incorrect views, the First Amendment gives them the right to voice those opinions. The concept of free speech was embraced by the Framers of the Constitution, who were clearly wiser than many who govern us today.
The Framers recognized that censorship doesn’t work practically: Rather, it encourages people to operate covertly, often exacerbating the problem. The cure to bad speech is good speech. But most of all, the Framers understood that giving government the authority to determine which ideas should be heard and which should be suppressed is a dangerous game.
Of course, many will argue that Twitter and other Big Tech companies censored Senger, Changizi, and Kotzin of their own volition, and since they are private actors, the First Amendment is inapplicable. That argument should be rejected.
When the government commandeers, coerces, or utilizes private companies to accomplish what it can’t do directly, courts recognize that is state action.
In a version of this case during the mid-20th century, Bantam Books v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court held that a state commission consigned with reprimanding sellers of pornography and advising them of their legal rights (a veiled threat) “deliberately set about to achieve the suppression of publications deemed ‘objectionable’ and succeeded in its aim.” The high court looked “through forms to the substance” and concluded that the state program violated the First Amendment.
That is similar to what is happening here. The Biden administration knows that it can’t get away with issuing orders directly prohibiting people from articulating views about COVID-19-related matters that differ from the government’s, or with obtaining social media users’ private information, so it is coercing companies into doing this on the government’s behalf.
Fearing reprisal from the government—reprisal that the government has contemplated publicly—social media companies are ramping up censorship. These companies also are likely to turn over the information about users that the surgeon general demanded, a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against warrantless searches.
Not only are Senger and others being silenced outright. Changizi, Kotzin, and millions of others are afraid to say what they really think, because they don’t want to suffer Senger’s fate of permanent suspension from Twitter.
Courts should “look through forms to the substance” and recognize what is going on. On the most hotly debated political topics of our time, the government is deciding what speech is acceptable and may be heard, and what speech isn’t acceptable and must be silenced.
This government overreach strikes at the heart of what the First Amendment is supposed to protect.