Humor website The Babylon Bee is suing to block a California law it claims gives the state power to censor their content.
The satirical website is part of a coalition that petitioned a California federal court on Tuesday to block AB 587, a 2022 law that requires social media companies to periodically report certain content to the government, including "hate speech" and "disinformation." The plaintiffs claim the bill is a "vehicle" for California Democrats to crack down on speech they find distasteful.
"Those who wield power in the Golden State have been candid about their displeasure with the speech being published on social media platforms," the lawsuit states. "California Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta have both expressed a desire to use state power to chill speech they do not approve of, constitutionally protected expression they refer to with derogatory labels like ‘disinformation,’ ‘hate speech,’ and ‘extremism.’"
The law enables the attorney general to fine companies for late, incomplete, or misrepresentative reports. But because the policy fails to define vague terms like "misinformation," the plaintiffs claim it gives the attorney general similarly broad enforcement powers and enables the state to censor content.
The plaintiffs also claim that Newsom has signaled the law’s true intention.
"California will not stand by as social media is weaponized to spread hate and disinformation that threaten our communities and foundational values as a country," the governor said in a statement when he signed it into law last September.
Minds, a small social media site promoting free speech, and podcaster Tim Pool joined The Babylon Bee in the lawsuit. While theirs is the first legal complaint, they are far from the first parties to voice qualms about the law’s potential effects on free speech.
Internet advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation fought AB 587 as it wound its way through the legislature, saying it violated the First Amendment. Silicon Valley companies argued it would undercut their efforts to moderate "harmful" content by giving bad actors a look at their content moderation practices.
AB 587 passed with the backing of groups like the Anti-Defamation League. Its authors billed it as a transparency measure trying to navigate a neutral path through the internet censorship debate that raged in both red and blue states during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bee lawsuit is the latest push against California laws that critics fear will quash free speech. In January, a federal judge froze a law targeting doctors in the state who spread "misinformation" or "disinformation" about the coronavirus, saying it was "unconstitutionally vague."