Plant City man sues Facebook, claiming ‘censorship’ of coronavirus posts

The lawsuit argues that the social media platform is a “state actor” subject to the First Amendment.
Richard Rogalinski, of Plant City, is suing Facebook, alleging the company has violated the First Amendment by “censoring” certain posts he made about COVID-19.
Richard Rogalinski, of Plant City, is suing Facebook, alleging the company has violated the First Amendment by “censoring” certain posts he made about COVID-19. [ Courtesy of Richard Rogalinski ]
Published Aug. 10, 2021|Updated Aug. 11, 2021

A Plant City man is suing Facebook, alleging the company has violated the First Amendment by “censoring” certain posts about COVID-19 on behalf of the Biden administration.

Related: False vaccine claims persist on Facebook, despite a ban. Here’s why

Richard Rogalinski, a 38-year-old Army veteran and business owner, said he is bringing forward the lawsuit on behalf of himself and any other Facebook users in America who had their activity on the platform “censored, modified, hidden, appended or curtailed” between Inauguration Day 2021 and July 19 — the date the lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Middle District of Florida.

Related: 10 types of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation swirling online

However, the company has monitored and attempted to correct medical misinformation on its platform in the past, such as moderating rumors about measles in Samoa and polio vaccines in Pakistan. Shortly after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Facebook released an update on its efforts to fight misinformation about the virus, writing in the March 25, 2020, post, “Ever since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global public health emergency, we’ve been working to connect people to accurate information and taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading.”

In August 2020, Facebook removed a post by President Donald Trump for the first time, saying the post violated the platform’s policy against spreading misinformation about COVID-19.

Rogalinski said he decided to sue after a July 15 press briefing in which White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration had been working to flag misinformation about COVID-19 for Facebook and had proposed changes to the social media platform and other online networks to combat misinformation about the pandemic.

Related: Biden: ‘Killing people’ remark was call for big tech to act

“That’s a big deal, a very big deal when the government starts to get involved with and censoring what people say,” he told the Tampa Bay Times.

Facebook declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects websites that block or screen content the company considers to be “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable.”

Rogalinski’s lawsuit argues that this protection does not apply to Facebook. By working with the federal government, and providing a public forum for conversation, Facebook became a “state actor” subject to the First Amendment, he claims.

“When you have a private association or a private company assuming the role of government, they become part of the government in a way that it is important for them to follow the Constitution,” Andrew Z. Tapp, an attorney representing Rogalinski, said in a phone interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

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Rogalinski had multiple posts regarding the coronavirus that were flagged by Facebook, according to the lawsuit.

In April, he posted a status on his Facebook page questioning the effectiveness of masks and their impact on one’s health, Rogalinski said. The social media site amended a link to the National Center for Biotechnology Information to his post and added a warning that the post could be misleading.

A month later, Rogalinski said he wrote a Facebook post linking to an article from Fox News host Tucker Carlson about people who died after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. In the post, Rogalinski claimed the vaccines would allow Bill Gates to “begin his depopulation agenda for ‘climate change.’” Facebook added a warning to the post, saying independent fact-checkers found that the post could be misleading.

Then, in June, Rogalinski posted a screenshot of a tweet promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19. Facebook hid the post with a warning that it contained “false information” and referenced a USA Today article that reported hydroxychloroquine was an ineffective treatment for the virus.

The question of how to stop the spread of misinformation around masking and vaccines — promoted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as effective measures for stopping the spread of the virus — has vexed government officials. In a July interview with CNN, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, said he believed polio still would exist in the United States if the level of misinformation seen today was present in the time before the disease was eradicated.

“If we had that back decades ago, I would be certain that we’d still have polio in this country,” he said.

The lawsuit is not the first high-profile case to take on Facebook in recent months. On July 7, former President Donald Trump filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for Florida’s southern district against Facebook, Twitter and Google, arguing that the companies had censored him.

Florida state lawmakers also attempted to pass a law that would prohibit large social media sites from banning political candidates and require the companies to publish their standards for blocking a user or removing their content. However, on June 30, a federal judge blocked the state law, arguing it was “riddled with imprecision and ambiguity.”