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Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to supporters March 30, 2024, during an event celebrating Cesar Chavez's birthday in Los Angeles. (AP) Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to supporters March 30, 2024, during an event celebrating Cesar Chavez's birthday in Los Angeles. (AP)

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to supporters March 30, 2024, during an event celebrating Cesar Chavez's birthday in Los Angeles. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman April 5, 2024

In RFK Jr.’s campaign against censorship, he made a False attack on Biden

If Your Time is short

  • Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has spread vaccine misinformation, sued the Biden administration, arguing that the government sought to have tech companies suppress First Amendment-protected speech. Two states separately sued the administration over its communications with social media companies.

  • Presidents John Adams and Woodrow Wilson signed sedition laws that targeted critics of the federal government, prompting  some of those critics to be prosecuted and punished. 

  • Our mission: Help you be an informed participant in democracy. Learn more.

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. accused President Joe Biden of being a greater "threat to democracy" than former President Donald Trump, arguing that Biden censored him.

"President Biden is the first candidate in history, the first president in history that has used the federal agencies to censor political speech or to censor his opponent," Kennedy said in an April 1 interview on CNN. 

Kennedy, who is running as an independent, referred to his lawsuit against the federal government in which he alleges the government censored his social media statements against vaccines. A judge granted Kennedy’s request for a preliminary injunction in the case, although it was stayed pending a ruling in another case.

Biden, Kennedy said on CNN, "started censoring — not just me — but 37 hours after he took the oath of office, he was censoring me. No president in the country has ever done that."

Kennedy then pivoted to a lawsuit two Republican-led states filed to challenge the federal government’s communications with social media companies. "The greatest threat to democracy is not somebody who questions election returns, but a president of the United States who uses the power of his office to force the social media companies … to censor his political critics," he said.

There are a few problems with Kennedy’s statement. 

First, he wasn’t Biden’s political opponent in January 2021, when a Biden administration official noticed Kennedy posting an anti-vaccine conspiracy theory and contacted Twitter. Kennedy didn’t declare his presidential run until April 2023.

Second, history shows there have been other U.S. presidents who have taken far more extreme measures to silence political dissent. 

Third, the court cases that Kennedy alluded to remain pending; Kennedy can continue to freely make statements about vaccines. Experts told PolitiFact that the Biden administration’s efforts to get social media platforms to moderate false posts is not the same as censoring opponents.

We emailed the Kennedy campaign press team and received a response that our request for comment was under consideration.

Biden White House sought removal of COVID-19 misinformation

Kennedy wrote Jan. 22, 2021, on Twitter, that U.S. Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron died as "part of a wave of suspicious deaths among elderly" following his COVID-19 vaccine. Aaron, 86, died from unrelated natural causes, a medical examiner found.

A Biden White House official emailed Twitter Jan. 23, 2021, and said, "Wondering if we can get moving on the process for having it removed ASAP." 

At the time, social media companies including Twitter policies had developed policies to handle false or misleading claims about COVID-19. 

Kennedy’s post wasn’t removed; it is still live today. 

Instagram’s parent company disabled Kennedy’s personal Instagram account in February 2021 for spreading false claims about COVID-19 and vaccines, but restored it after he launched his presidential bid more than two years later. His Instagram account has nearly 2 million followers.

Courts weighing censorship question 

Kennedy, along with his legal advocacy group Children’s Health Defense and a Louisiana resident sued the administration in 2023, arguing that the government worked to have tech companies suppress First Amendment-protected speech, including items that could make the public "hesitant" toward COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The lawsuit states that a Biden spokesperson accused Kennedy of "producing 65% of anti-vaccine misinformation on social-media platforms."

The lawsuit is not only about COVID-19 posts or posts by Kennedy — it alleges that the government sought to suppress posts about the 2020 election and Hunter Biden’s laptop. The lawsuit says that "efforts by federal officers to induce social-media platforms to censor speech appear to have begun in 2020," which would have been under Trump, and criticizes actions by the Biden administration, which started in January 2021. 

Although Kennedy received a preliminary injunction in the case, that February ruling was stayed until the U.S. Supreme Court rules in a related case brought by Missouri and Louisiana. The states accuse the Biden administration of breaching the First Amendment by discussing content moderation with social media companies, suppressing conservatives’ content about COVID-19 and voting by mail.

The Justice Department argued, "Social-media users have a First Amendment right to be free from governmental restrictions on their speech, but they have no First Amendment right to post content on private platforms that the platforms would prefer not to host." 

Featured Fact-check

Experts poke holes in ‘censorship’ characterization, but look to courts

Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College at Columbia University, said Kennedy’s being among the people spreading false or dangerous information does not mean that the Biden administration "was attacking him, as an individual citizen or as a potential opponent of Biden."

Berman said it’s reasonable for citizens and candidates to debate how much social media moderation should exist. 

"However, general attempts to limit the spread of dangerous or false information about extremely sensitive and consequential topics — like elections results or the efficacy of vaccines during a pandemic — is not a threat to democracy," Berman said.

Thomas Healy, a law professor at Seton Hall Law School, said the Supreme Court will ultimately resolve the question of whether the Biden administration engaged in censorship.

"The federal government is entitled to use the bully pulpit to advance its policy goals, and most modern administrations have done so," Healy said. "Such communications would rise to the level of censorship only if the encouragement crossed the line into coercion, and that is a factual question."

Two lower courts ruled that the government likely did engage in coercion, but a majority of the Supreme Court seemed skeptical of that claim during March oral arguments.

"Even if the Supreme Court agrees with the lower courts that the Biden administration violated the First Amendment, its actions are a far cry from the punishment of political opponents we have seen at earlier moments in American history and that Donald Trump has promised to pursue if reelected," Healy said.

Past presidents took actions against the press

Whatever happens with the current court cases, history is clear about one thing: Past U.S. administrations have imposed far more extreme policies in response to government criticism. Four examples:

  • President John Adams in 1798 signed the Sedition Act, which permitted the deportation, fine or imprisonment of anyone deemed a threat or who published "false, scandalous, or malicious writing" against the U.S. government.  Many newspaper editors who criticized Adams’ administration were prosecuted. The unpopular law contributed to Adams’ presidential election defeat in 1800, and the law expired. 

Steven Levitsky, a government professor at Harvard University, called Kennedy’s comparison baseless and "reckless." "In Adams' time," he said, "newspapers were virtually the ONLY form of expression." 

  • President Woodrow Wilson signed the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a crime to write or publish "any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the government or the war effort. Wilson’s Justice Department brought about 2,000 indictments under the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918, Healy, the Seton Hall law professor, said. One of the people jailed under the acts was Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party leader who ran for president against Wilson in 1912. Debs was arrested in 1918 after giving an antiwar speech and convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917. He ran for president in 1920 under the Socialist Party banner from a federal prison in Alabama and his prison sentence was later commuted. 

In 1917, Wilson issued an executive order creating the Records of the Committee on Public Information, which was a "a vast effort in propaganda," Boston University journalism professor Christopher Daly wrote.

  • The Justice Department in the late 1940s and 1950s under Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower prosecuted the Communist Party of America’s leaders under the Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate for the U.S. government’s overthrow by violence or force, Healy said. "The evidence against them showed that they were mainly teaching the doctrines of Marx and Lenin; there was no evidence that they were taking concrete steps to initiate a violent overthrow," Healy said.

  • President Abraham Lincoln in May 1864 issued an executive order commanding Union Army Maj. Gen. John A. Dix to "arrest and imprison in any fort or military prison in your command the editors, proprietors, and publishers" of newspapers that printed a forged presidential proclamation calling for the drafting of 400,000 more troops. News accounts at the time said newspaper offices were seized and at least one proprietor was arrested.

Our ruling

Kennedy said "President Biden is the first candidate in history, the first president in history, that has used the federal agencies to censor political speech ... to censor his opponent."

There are several factual issues with the claim. Kennedy was referring to a Biden administration official emailing Twitter in January 2021, asking the platform to remove Kennedy’s false post about the COVID-19 vaccine causing Hank Aaron’s death.

Kennedy didn’t announce his presidential candidacy for more than two years after that post, which remains live on Twitter.

Kennedy has sued the administration over its communications with social media companies. And courts are weighing whether these communications amount to censorship.

But even if someone deems the Biden administration’s actions censorship, Kennedy is wrong about history. Presidents Adams and Wilson signed sedition legislation that made it a crime to criticize the federal government. Those laws led to the prosecution of political figures, including Debs, who ran for president. Their actions also targeted the free press.

We rate this statement False. 

PolitiFact Copy Chief Matthew Crowley and Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this fact-check.

RELATED: All of our fact-checks of Robert F Kennedy

RELATED: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign of conspiracy theories: PolitiFact’s 2023 Lie of the Year

Our Sources

CNN, RFK Jr. says Biden is bigger threat to democracy than Trump, April 1, 2024

CNN, RFK Jr. argues that Biden is a bigger threat to democracy than Trump, April 1, 2024

CNN, Clip of Jonah Goldberg, editor of The Dispatch, April 2, 2024

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., X post, Jan. 22, 2021

U.S. District Court for Western District of Louisiana, ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR., CHILDREN’S HEALTH DEFENSE, & CONNIE SAMPOGNARO, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated v Biden, March 24, 2023

Bloomberg Law, RFK Jr. Wins Deferred Injunction in Vax Social Media Suit, Feb. 15, 2024

U.S. Supreme Court, Murthy v Missouri reply brief for petitioners, March 2024

Forbes, Trump White House pressed Twitter to remove Chrissy Teigen insult, ex-exec testifies, Feb. 8 2023

Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, Sedition Act of 1798, March 21, 2024

Smithsonian, When America’s Most Prominent Socialist Was Jailed for Speaking Out Against World War I, June 15, 2018

The Washington Post, Misinformation-spouting RFK Jr. muses that Biden is threat to democracy, April 2, 2024

NBC, Supreme Court leans against limiting Biden administration contacts with social media platforms, March 18, 2024

The New York Times, Trump Denies Elections and Praises Rioters, but R.F.K. Jr. Says It’s Biden Who Threatens Democracy, April 2, 2024

The Hill, Supreme Court appears wary of limiting feds’ interactions with social media companies, March 19, 2024

SCOTUS blog, Supreme Court skeptical of restricting government communications with social media companies, March 18, 2024

American Presidency Project, Executive Order—Arrest and Imprisonment of Irresponsible Newspaper Reporters and Editors, May 18, 1864

PolitiFact, Could Jan. 6 rioters face sedition charges? And what would that mean? March 24, 2021

Email interview, John Vile, political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, April 3, 2024

Email interview, Sheri Berman, political science professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, April 3, 2024

Email interview, Steven Levitsky, professor of government at Harvard University, April 3, 2024

Email interview, Thomas Healy, professor at Seton Hall law school, April 4, 2024

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