8月21日,一群美国微信用户正式向特朗普总统的行政令提起诉讼,状告该令从9月20日开始禁止用户正常使用微信。美东时间9月17日,旧金山联邦法院将召开第一次听证会,就是否颁布临时禁令阻止特朗普政府继续推行这一行政令进行裁决。听证会前,ALB和原告代理律师Michael Bien聊了聊。

 

ALB:您能向我们介绍一下您自己,以及您在这场诉讼中的角色吗?

Michael Bien:我是一位执业于旧金山的律师,经营有一家专事诉讼的律师事务所Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld,我们代理过很多民权诉讼,基于宪法第一修正案向政府违背言论自由或新闻自由的行为提起诉讼。我们也和高科技公司打过一些交道。

此次共有三家律所代理这起涉及微信用户的诉讼案,我们是其中一家。不久前,旨在反对特朗普总统微信禁令的组织——美国微信用户联合会(U.S. WeChat Users Alliance)联系了我们。美微联会成员与腾讯或微信公司不存在任何关连,他们只是微信的用户群体,日常生活和工作都非常依赖微信,并通过微信联络身处中美两国的亲友。

微信禁令引发了他们的担忧惊惧,因为违令者将面临一系列刑事和民事制裁,但禁令的定义非常含糊。我的客户不清楚他们是否还可以继续使用微信、微信是否会被关闭,也不清楚他们是否可以照常使用微信、但却会在事后被告知违法。

这群微信用户尝试去下载微信上的联系人、业务记录和微信群组,但非常困难。我的客户还告诉我,对美国的华人群体来说,微信是无可替代的。据统计,在美华人中,超过40%的人不懂英语。因此他们更为依赖微信。

ALB:您希望通过诉讼实现什么目标?

Bien:我们认为这个行政令在多方面违反了宪法。我们还认为它违背了国会通过的部分法案。但其中最重要的还是微信用户的宪法权利,包括宪法第一和第五修正案下的权利。

第一修正案保护言论自由,即人民有权自由发表言论;享有接收新闻的自由,有发表评论的自由;他们还有集会自由,即结群之自由和出席集会之自由。此外还有宗教自由。尤其在新冠疫情期间,人们不能在封闭空间集会,宗教集会于是改为通过微信之类的App进行。不能见面的日子里,家族内关于红事白事的消息也都是通过微信获取的。微信在全球华人社区中扮演着至关重要的角色,因此这些利益更加重要。

微信禁令还将被控歧视。我们认为微信禁令与特朗普总统最近频繁的反华言论有关,这助长了针对美国华人社群的仇恨。很多社交软件与微信功能类似。特朗普总统说微信下载并使用了用户的数据,但脸书也是如此,每个社交软件都是如此,因为那是它们的盈利方式。那为什么只封杀微信?难道仅仅是为了重创华人社区?

我们还将起诉微信禁令违背了宪法第五修正案中的正当程序原则。根据第五修正案,政府必须公正地告知人们他们的行为合法与否。微信禁令将于9月20日生效,其规定任何与腾讯或微信公司的交易行为均属违法,但何为“交易”语焉不详。有人解读为只要使用微信就属违法,也有解读称从App Store下载或升级微信程序是违法的,或只要在微信上进行任何操作都是违法的。违令者将面临最高20年监禁和一百万美元罚款的刑事制裁,或者二十万美元或按交易额两倍进行罚款的民事制裁。这些都是非常严厉的处罚,而根据宪法,你不能在不告诉某人哪些行为违法、哪些行为不违法的情况下,就对他们进行这样的处罚,尤其是刑事处罚。

ALB:我们是否能说美微联会的诉讼与TikTok的诉讼相比,采用了不同策略?

Bien:TikTok诉讼的发起人是公司所有者,而不是TikTok用户。我认为这两宗诉讼某些情况相似,但有些相去甚远。TikTok的用户也可以通过第一修正案保护自己的权利,但TikTok的受众本质上不是中国用户,并且对华人社区影响力不如微信。

ALB:您为什么认为这一诉讼会继续甚至成功?

Bien:我认为虽然起诉政府很难,因为政府在某些领域权力很大,他们可以打着“国家安全”的幌子,这一说法院也会买账。但是我们认为,鉴于微信禁令侵害了宪法赋予的权利,并且没有足够的证据表明使用微信确实危害国家安全,因此美微联会成员有机会阻止该禁令的实施。

我无法预测结果,但我认为微信禁令严重违宪,政府需要提供一些实质性的理由并辅以真凭实据的支持,以表明微信禁令是非常必要的。我想法院会问:是否有另一种方法可以实现维护国家安全这一合法预期,而又不至于封杀微信,伤害那么多在美国工作和生活的人,包括一些美国公民呢?我们将尝试让法院从这个角度看待问题。

ALB:这方面有否先例?

Bien:对我来说这个案子最有趣的地方就在于它的“史无前例”——封杀社交软件的做法是史无前例的。我们目前能够参照的先例多数来自互联网和社交媒体还没普及的年代,例如政府试图封杀某家报纸或广播电台,但这样的行为在美国是违宪的。

我目前正在研究一个有趣的案例,一个名为Backpage.com的网站起诉了伊利诺伊州库克县警长托马斯J.达特(Backpage.com, LLC v Thomas J. Dart, Sheriff of Cook County)。达特警长试图让信用卡公司停止与Backpage.com开展业务,因为这个网站允许人们在上面刊登寻找性伴侣的广告。美国联邦第七巡回上诉法院裁定该警长行为违宪。

当然,这个案子和微信诉讼并没有直接关系,但其中的关键信息在于:法院甚至认为一家通过投放性广告牟利的网站不能被封杀,因为该网站的权利受到第一修正案保护,而达特警长的间接行为损害了网站的宪法权利。法院在判决中说:警长本人有权鄙视这一网站,但无权进行“赤裸裸的威胁”,并要求警长停止威胁信用卡公司,许可它们继续和Backpage展开交易。

某种程度上说,这两桩案件其中涉及的宪法原则类似。特朗普总统说:我对中国很生气,我希望每个人都停止与中国做生意,我将会从封杀微信和TikTok开始,不听我的,我就威胁你。

谈到互联网时代的宪法诉讼,还有一个重要的最高法院判例,即帕金汉姆诉北卡罗来纳州案(Packingham v. North Carolina)。本案中,北卡罗莱纳州政府禁止性罪犯出狱后使用互联网和社交媒体,最高法院判定此举违宪。最高法院在本案中首次表述道:互联网是一件特殊事物,特别是社交媒体,它们“为各种形式的交流提供相对无限制且低成本的可能性”,因此政府不能禁止有犯罪前科的人使用互联网。

再次强调,这个案件和本案没有太多可比性,但我们可以从中了解:法律正在逐步理解什么是社交媒体,并且指出了社交媒体大不同于以往的一切。法律正逐渐意识到:社交媒体为人们提供了可以聚集、分享想法并交流的空间。


WeChat users sue Trump: The lawyer’s perspective

On Aug. 21, a group of WeChat users in the U.S. officially filed a lawsuit against President Trump’s executive order banning the usage of this app from Sept. 20. On Sept. 17, the federal court of San Francisco will hold the first hearing on a preliminary injunction concerning enjoining the government from enforcing the order. ALB caught up with one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, Michael Bien, before the hearing.

 

ALB: Could you tell us about yourself, and your role in this lawsuit?

Michael Bien: I’m an attorney in San Francisco and we have a litigation firm (Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld) that does a lot of civil rights work including in the area of suits challenging government actions under the First Amendment of the Constitution: Freedom of speech, or of the press. We also do some work involving high-technology companies.

As one of the three law firms in the lawsuit, we were approached by a group that was formed for the purpose of challenging President Trump’s executive order banning WeChat. The group is called U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, and none of our plaintiffs are associated in any way with Tencent or WeChat. They are just users of WeChat, people who find they’re very dependent on WeChat both in their day-to-day life and business, and to communicate with their families both in China and around the United States.

They are quite concerned and frightened about the executive order, which includes a series of criminal and civil sanctions, but does not include any definitions about what activities are OK to do using WeChat, and what are not. My clients don’t know whether they will be able to use WeChat, whether it will be turned off, or whether they are allowed to use it, only to be later told that what they do is illegal.

So, people are attempting to find ways of downloading their contacts, their business records and their groups on WeChat, but it’s very difficult. My clients have also told me there are no good alternatives for Chinese speakers in the U.S. to WeChat. We estimate that more than 40 percent of the Chinese population in the U.S. is not literate in English. They really depend on WeChat for that reason.

ALB: What are you looking to achieve through the lawsuit?

Bien: We’re contending that the executive order is violating the Constitution in various ways. We also contend that it violates statues, certain laws passed by the Congress. But the most important interests are the constitutional interests, which includes the First and Fifth amendments of the Constitution.

The First Amendment protects activities such as free speech, including the right to speak, to gain access to the press, to write your opinions, and the freedom of association, which means the freedom to organize groups and to get together. All these rights are protected by the First Amendment, along with the freedom of religion. Especially during the pandemic, when people are not allowed to gather in closed spaces, apps like WeChat are used for religious gatherings, and also for announcing information like births and deaths within families. Because of the critical role WeChat is playing for the Chinese community around the whole world, those interests are even more important.

Discrimination will be another claim. We think this executive order is related to President Trump’s recently increasing anti-China statements, which really have helped cause a rise in hate crime in America towards the Chinese community. There are a lot of social media apps that do the same thing as WeChat. He says that WeChat downloads users’ data and uses it, but so does Facebook, really, everyone does that because that’s how they make money. Why are you banning just this company? Only because it will have an extraordinary effect on the Chinese community?

Another claim is called due process under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. It says the government has to give fair notice to people about what is legal and what is illegal. In terms of this executive order, which says any transaction with Tencent or WeChat is illegal as of Sept. 20, but it doesn’t say what “transaction” means. Some people say any use of it at all is illegal, or it could mean downloading it from App Store is illegal, or upgrade your software is illegal, or anything you do on WeChat is illegal. And the executive order includes criminal sanctions of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of a million dollars, and civil sanctions of $200,000 dollars or twice the amount of your transaction. Those are real serious penalties and under constitutional law, you can’t hold someone against penalties like these, especially criminal penalties, without telling them what behaviours violate the laws and what do not.   

ALB: Can we confirm this lawsuit employs a very different strategy compared with TikTok?

Bien: The TikTok suit is brought by the company owner, not by the users. I think some elements of the two cases are overlapping, but some are very different. TikTok users can also protect their rights under the First Amendment, but it’s not a Chinese-oriented app at all, and it doesn’t serve that community as WeChat does in the U.S.

ALB: Why do you believe the lawsuit will proceed?

Bien: I think lawsuits that challenge the government are difficult. The government has a lot of power in these areas; they can say they’re dealing with national security issues and the court will give deference to those interests. But we think given the constitutional rights violated here, and given the lack of evidence in regard to the national security problems, there is a chance for plaintiffs to enjoin the ban.

I can’t predict the outcome, but I think that the constitutional problems here are serious, and it requires the government to demonstrate some substantial reason with real evidence to show the executive order is so necessary. I think the court will ask: Is there another way to achieve this legitimate goal of national security without shutting off the whole app and hurting so many people living and working in America, including American citizens? That’s the angle we’ll try to get the court to look at.

ALB: Is there any precedent in this regard?

Bien: What’s interesting to me is that this case is unprecedented - shutting down a social media app is unprecedented. We’re trying to think of an analogy before the era of Internet, before social media, when the government shut down a newspaper or a radio station in the US, which is illegal here.

There is an interesting case called Backpage.com, LLC v Thomas J. Dart, Sheriff of Cook County. The sheriff of Cook County, Chicago, tried to get credit card companies to stop doing business with an American website called Backpage, which was used for posting advertisements for people looking for sexual partners. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Sheriff’s actions were unconstitutional.

Nothing from the case is directly relevant here, but the point is: The court decided that a website making money selling ads for sexual partners can’t be shut down, and that the website company’s constitutional rights under the First Amendment were violated by the sheriff’s indirect efforts. The court said in the opinion that the sheriff could denounce the website, but not make “dire threats,” including of possible prosecution, and the court barred the sheriff from coercing or threatening sanctions for doing business with Backpage.

To some extent, this case sort of has the same principle as the current case. President Trump is saying, “I’m angry with China, I want everyone to stop doing business with China and I’ll start out with WeChat and TikTok, or I’ll threaten you.”

Talking about constitutional lawsuits in the era of the Internet, there’s one important Supreme Court case, which is called Packingham v. North Carolina. In this case, people convicted of sex crimes who were released from the prison were banned from using the Internet and social media by the government, and that was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court for the first time said that the Internet was something special, particularly social media, which offers “relatively unlimited, low-cost capacity for communication of all kinds,” so the government couldn’t ban a former criminal from using the Internet at all.

Again, not exactly on point, but the law is moving gradually to understand what social media is because it’s so different from anything previously. And its realizing that social media is where people can gather, share ideas and communicate.

 

To contact the editorial team, please email ALBEditor@thomsonreuters.com