US judge bars Biden officials from contacting social media firms

Judge says government overstepped in its efforts to address false claims about COVID-19 vaccines and the 2020 election.

Screen displaying social media apps
Debate has flared over the balance between freedom of expression and efforts to stem the spread of misinformation [File: Dado Ruvic/Illustration via Reuters]

A United States federal judge has blocked officials in the administration of President Joe Biden from contacting social media companies about content moderation.

In a court filing on Tuesday, Judge Terry Doughty issued the injunction in response to a lawsuit brought by Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri. They allege that the government went too far in its efforts to encourage social media platforms to address false information.

Doughty wrote that the government’s attempt to limit false claims related to elections and the COVID-19 pandemic “arguably involves the most massive attack against free speech in United States history”.

A federal judge appointed by former President Donald Trump, Doughty had previously issued a ruling in January 2022 to block COVID-19 vaccination requirements for school teachers. He also barred mandatory vaccination requirements for healthcare workers, but that decision was largely overruled by the US Supreme Court.

His filing on Tuesday includes numerous references to conservative talking points.

Nevertheless, Tuesday’s injunction has been hailed as a victory for Republicans who argue that Biden, a Democrat, used the COVID-19 pandemic to police speech in the name of combating “misinformation”.

One Republican, Senator Eric Schmitt of Missouri, called the decision “a huge win for the First Amendment and a blow to censorship”. He accused the Biden administration of creating “a vast censorship enterprise” and “colluding” with media firms.

Over the last several years, the US has debated the boundaries between addressing the spread of potentially harmful claims online and the right to free speech.

Efforts to restrict, for example, false statements about the 2020 election have sparked complaints about conservative censorship on social media.

Many of those claims were amplified by Trump, who alleged the election had been “stolen”. He was temporarily suspended from major platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, following the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, during the certification of the election. But all three platforms have since reinstated his accounts.

In Tuesday’s order, filed with the US District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, Judge Doughty made some exceptions to his injunction: The government could, for example, communicate with social media companies on issues of national security and criminal activity.

The injunction was first reported by the Washington Post.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies