Lawyers representing activist and streamer Jordan Uhl, who was banned by U.S. Army and Navy Twitch channels for asking about American war crimes, have demanded that the Army and Navy reverse the ban on First Amendment grounds.
“The banning of Mr. Uhl from these channels violates the First Amendment,” lawyers from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University wrote in a letter addressed to senior military officials. “We write to ask that you unban Mr. Uhl immediately and also unban all others who have been banned from the channels based on similar speech.”
The lawyers also demanded in the letter that both the Army and Navy’s esports teams “adopt and publish written policies to ensure that others are not banned from these channels in the future based on viewpoint.”
As Motherboard previously reported, Uhl was banned from commenting on Twitch streams involving the Army’s esports teams for posting comments such as “what’s your favorite us war crime?” and “what’s your favorite u.s. w4r cr1me?” Earlier this week, he was banned from commenting on the Navy’s Twitch stream for asking about Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL convicted of war crimes. Last week, lawyers from both the Knight Institute and the ACLU said that these bans almost definitely violate the First Amendment.
“I plan to take this as far as we need to,” Uhl told Motherboard on the phone. “This isn’t just about me getting unbanned. This is about people being able to use their voice online to speak critically of the government.”
“His messages were quintessential political speech, which lie at the ‘core of the First Amendment.’ [judges in] N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Co. [found],” the Knight lawyers wrote. “Nor does the government have the authority, in a forum like this one, to adopt rules that effectively prohibit participants from criticizing the military.”
A cached version of the Navy’s Twitch streaming guide tells sailors to “ban trolls.” Courts have previously ruled that official U.S. government social media accounts, including Donald Trump’s Twitter account, cannot block people without violating the First Amendment. The lawyers demanded a response to their letter by August 5.
In 2017, Knight successfully sued Trump for blocking people on Twitter. Uhl was part of that case. “Government officials don’t seem to understand the First Amendment,” Uhl said. “Even in 2020, an immensely digital age, we’re still seeing government officials flabbergasted by these kinds of cases. I don’t expect them, en masse, to learn anytime soon.”
"U.S. Army Recruiting Command received the letter today and will review it through appropriate channels," a U.S. Army representative told Vice Games. "The esports team members banned users for behavior intended to harass, degrade and intimidate, which violates the Twitch community guidelines."
"The accounts in the letter are not accurate,” a Navy Spokesperson told VICE Games. “Our records show that over the course of three days Mr. Uhl proceeded to spam and harass our esports team members with intimidating speech and baiting questions in a manner that violated the Twitch terms of service, and the Navy’s terms that are posted on the Navy team’s Twitch stream."
Update: This story has been updated with comment from the U.S. Army and Navy.