Following the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced he’d take on Twitter for its decision to ban former President Donald Trump from its service. Now, the Big Tech titan is biting back.
On Monday, Twitter filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent Paxton and his office from investigating the company’s content moderation policies. An unshakeable Trump supporter, Paxton announced an investigation into the platform after it booted the outgoing president on Jan. 8 over fears he’d incite more political violence.
In the lawsuit, Twitter argues that Paxton’s push to obtain confidential documents through a civil investigative demand (CID) is “unlawful.”
“The investigation and CID unlawfully intrude on Twitter’s internal editorial processes and burden its protected activity, and do so solely because Twitter exercised its First Amendment rights in a way disagreeable to AG Paxton,” the lawsuit reads. “This retaliatory conduct violates the Constitution.”
Twitter further alleges the attorney general is using “the full weight of his office” to retaliate against the platform, which ultimately violates its free speech and freedom of the press rights.
Paxton’s office did not return the Observer’s requests for comment.
Twitter’s lawsuit is the latest in a string of bad press for the attorney general, who is facing multiple legal challenges himself. Last month, a court filing alleged that Paxton had helped an Austin real estate developer’s business affairs in exchange for a home remodel and a job for Paxton's mistress.
Paxton is also the subject of an FBI investigation, according to The Associated Press, and faces felony securities fraud charges from 2015.
Following the news of Twitter's lawsuit, liberals were quick to pounce on Texas’ embattled top lawyer. Joe Jaworski, a 2022 Democratic candidate for Texas attorney general, seized the opportunity to question Paxton's priorities.
“Another legal distraction for Paxton who continues to prioritize fighting for Trump over fighting for Texans recovering from the winter storm,” Jaworski said in a tweet. “We need an AG who does their job without starting petty partisan fights.”
Republicans have long claimed that social networking sites are biased against conservatives, which Big Tech companies largely refute. Democrats, meanwhile, readily point out that tech giants are private companies that can moderate content as they see fit.
Traditionally, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private actors, said Michael Shapiro, an attorney at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic.
“As much as certain people vehemently object to Donald Trump not having his platform on Twitter, we understand Twitter to be a private company,” Shapiro said. “It’s only government actors who are prohibited from abridging the freedom of speech under the First Amendment.”
Social media networks play a big role in providing a soapbox for political discourse, he added. It makes sense that people get sensitive about decisions that could alter the speech they see on those networks and who is allowed to participate.
But Shapiro said Twitter is arguing that their editorial decisions regarding content moderation are also protected by the First Amendment.
That might not stop other conservative lawmakers from attacking Big Tech. Tuesday, Plano state Rep. Matt Shaheen announced he’d filed a bill that would hold social media companies liable for censorship by allowing Texans to sue them.
Social media companies are no longer neutral, Shaheen said in a news release.
“These companies are now more powerful than ever in controlling the narrative, labeling conservative content as untrue and censoring us every single day,” he said. “No other publishing medium is legally allowed to do this because it is dangerous and destructive, and citizens should have the right to fight back against this outrageous censorship.”
Earlier this month, East Texas state Sen. Bryan Hughes filed a similar bill in the Senate. On Friday, he tweeted that the bill would “allow Texans to participate on the virtual public square free from Silicon Valley censorship”; Gov. Greg Abbott also announced his support for the move.
Meanwhile, a new study by New York University researchers contests that conservative talking point. They found the idea of an “anti-conservative animus” from social media companies is a “falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it.”
"No trustworthy large-scale studies have determined that conservative content is being removed for ideological reasons or that searches are being manipulated to favor liberal interests," the researchers wrote.