Baidu, China’s most popular Internet search engine, has a First Amendment right to block searches for articles and videos on the country’s pro-democracy movement, a federal judge in New York says.
Eight New York writers and video producers claimed in a lawsuit that the censorship at the behest of the Chinese government violated their First Amendment rights. But U.S. District Court Judge Jesse Furman said the censorship itself was protected free speech.
"The First Amendment protects Baidu's right to advocate for systems of government other than democracy (in China or elsewhere) just as surely as it protects plaintiffs' rights to advocate for democracy," the judge wrote in a decision Thursday dismissing the lawsuit, according to Reuters.
Furman likened a search engine's "editorial judgment" to that of a newspaper editor who decides which stories to publish, Reuters said.
The plaintiffs claimed Baidu’s censorship kept them from seeing their work, unlike users of other search engines such as Google and Microsoft's Bing. They sought $16 million in damages for violations of their civil and equal protection rights.
The right for a media company to publish what it wants “protects Chinese media as much as American media,” Baidu’s lawyer, Carey Ramos of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, told The Wall Street Journal's Alex Frangos.
Stephen Preziosi, a lawyer for the activists, expressed disappointment.
"The court has laid out a perfect paradox: that it will allow the suppression of free speech, in the name of free speech," he told Reuters.
He said his clients will appeal.
Forbes contributor Eric Goldman, who writes about Internet law, said he agreed with Furman's decision. He contended the lawsuit lacked legal merit.
“To me, the First Amendment’s application to search results isn’t even a close question," he said in analyzing the decision. "Search engines 'publish' their search results. Like all other media publishers, search engines decide what content to include and exclude and how to prioritize that material.”