Ruling: Tech giants free to censor content under US Constitution

According to the court platforms such as YouTube were not a public forum subject to First Amendment scrutiny by judges

Tech giants including Google are free to censor content as they wish and are not a public forum subject to First Amendment scrutiny, a US court ruled Wednesday, in a landmark freedom-of-speech case concerning private internet platforms.

The 3-0 decision by San Francisco's Ninth Circuit appeals court came as a rejection of a conservative news outlet's claims that YouTube had breached the First Amendment by censoring its content. In particular, Prager University, a conservative nonprofit run by radio talk show host Dennis Prager, claimed that YouTube's opposition to its political views led it to tag dozens of videos on such topics as abortion, gun rights, Islam and terrorism for its "Restricted Mode" setting, and block third parties from advertising on the videos. In its original lawsuit, PragerU also pointed  to similar videos from more liberal accounts such as BuzzFeed, TEDx Talks and Real Time with Bill Maher which had not been restricted.

Writing for the appeals court, however, Circuit Judge Margaret McKeown said YouTube was a private forum despite its “ubiquity” and public accessibility, and hosting videos did not make it a “state actor” for purposes of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government (but not private parties), from censoring free speech. McKeown also dismissed PragerU’s false advertising claim, saying YouTube’s “braggadocio” about its commitment to free speech - such as “everyone deserves to have a voice, and [the] world is a better place when we listen, share and build community through our stories” - were merely opinions.

The ruling was welcomed by YouTube on Wednesday.

"Google's products are not politically biased," YouTube spokesman Farshad Shadloo wrote in a statement to AFP. "We go to extraordinary lengths to build our products and enforce our policies in such a way that political leanings are not taken into account."

"PragerU's allegations were meritless, both factually and legally, and the court's ruling vindicates important legal principles that allow us to provide different choices and settings to users," he added

The appeals court's decision upheld an earlier lower court ruling. But PragerU vowed not to abandon its case.

"Of course this ruling is disappointing, but we won't stop fighting and spreading public awareness of Big Tech's censorship of conservative ideas," said PragerU marketing chief Craig Strazzeri.

PragerU chief executive officer Marissa Streit added: "Sadly, it appears as if even the Ninth Circuit is afraid of Goliath - Google. We're not done fighting for free speech and we will keep pushing forward."

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