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Federal judge dismisses lawsuit involving PolitiFact

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson June 30, 2021

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the group Children’s Health Defense against the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Facebook, and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The lawsuit alleged that PolitiFact, a project of Poynter, had censored a truthful public health statement about vaccines through its fact-checking relationship with Facebook.

Susan Illston, a judge in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, dismissed the complaint against Poynter, Facebook and Zuckerberg. She also dismissed the complaint against a fourth defendant, Science Feedback, but ruled that Children’s Health Defense could re-file a complaint against Science Feedback since the group was never formally served.

Children’s Health Defense "has not plausibly alleged that defendants engaged in federal action and thus CHD may not seek injunctive relief based on alleged First Amendment violations," Illston wrote. She added that Children’s Health Defense failed to present actionable claims under two other grounds -- the Lanham Act, which addresses false advertising, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Mark R. Caramanica, the attorney from the Tampa firm Thomas & LoCicero who represented Poynter in the case, said he’s pleased with the ruling.

"The court rightly found that the plaintiffs could not state a claim under any of the causes of action," said. "Basically, the court said there’s no case here."

Caramanica said the ruling confirms that PolitiFact’s actions belong to the "pure marketplace of ideas and journalistic fact checking."

In its lawsuit, Children’s Health Defense alleged that PolitiFact had wrongly ruled False a claim that the flu vaccine was "significantly associated" with an increased risk of coronavirus, and that PolitiFact blocked the group from displaying the article on its Facebook page.

The claim that the flu vaccine was significantly associated with an increased risk of coronavirus  tracks back to an April story from the website, which in turn cites research from the U.S. Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. In its review, which relied on expert interviews, PolitiFact found that the Armed Forces study did not support the conclusion and headline of the article. quickly changed the headline and article.   

The lawsuit also alleged that Facebook collaborated with government entities — specifically the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — "to suppress vaccine safety speech with a ‘warning label’ and other notices that appear to flag disinformation, but in reality censor valid and truthful speech, including speech critical of those agencies and their policies."

Children’s Health Defense, which posted the article on its Facebook page, was seeking damages of $5 million or more.

In her ruling, Illston wrote that the plaintiff had amended the lawsuit twice and that she was denying the request to amend it for a third time. "With each amendment, the complaint has grown in length, if not substance," she wrote.

In a statement posted to Children’s Health Defense’s website, Mary Holland, the group’s president and general counsel, said that "while the decision is disappointing, we are not shocked." Children’s Health Defense said it is "reviewing its legal options."

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Federal judge dismisses lawsuit involving PolitiFact