US court halts ban on government contact with social media giants

A judge had previously blocked officials from engaging with the companies, in a case over misinformation and censorship.

COVID misinfo
A man spreads COVID misinformation in Huntington Beach, California [Mark J Terrill/AP Photo]

A United States appeals court has paused an earlier order that prevented government agencies from contacting social media companies to influence the content they publish.

The New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the ban on Friday, until an appeal lodged by the administration of President Joe Biden can be adjudicated.

The decision was prompted by a July 4 ruling from a federal judge in Louisiana, barring the administration from approaching tech companies for “the purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression or reduction of content”.

Doing so, US District Judge Terry Doughty ruled, violated free speech protection under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Doughty granted the injunction based on a lawsuit brought by Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri, as well as by several individuals.

They alleged that government officials, under both Biden and his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, effectively coerced social media companies to censor posts they feared were spreading COVID vaccine misinformation.

Government lawyers, however, have responded that attempts to tamp down on misinformation did not amount to censorship. There is no evidence “suggesting that a threat accompanied any request for the removal of content”, they said.

Still, they warned that severing communication with social media companies could potentially cause public harm by stifling the government’s ability to voice concerns directly about misinformation.

Doughty’s initial injunction was temporary, in place until a final ruling could be made in the lawsuit. And it did include some exceptions, including allowing the government to communicate with social media companies on issues of national security and criminal activity.

The Biden administration has said the ban “raises grave separation-of-powers concerns” by putting the judicial branch of government in the “untenable position of superintending the executive branch’s communications”.

The social media companies mentioned in the lawsuit include Twitter, YouTube owner Alphabet and Meta Platforms Inc, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram.

Source: News Agencies