Top US court halts order limiting officials’ contact with social media orgs

The injunction would have barred the administration of President Joe Biden from weighing in on social media content.

U.S. President Joe Biden convenes a meeting of his so-called Cancer Cabinet — officials working on the Biden administration’s effort to accelerate cancer research and treatments — at the White House in Washington, U.S. September 13, 2023.
US President Joe Biden has faced criticism for his administration’s interactions with social media companies over content moderation [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

The United States Supreme Court has temporarily halted an injunction that restricts the administration of President Joe Biden from collaborating with social media giants on the removal of false or misleading content.

Thursday’s decision is the latest move in an ongoing legal battle over whether Biden officials overstepped in their efforts to tamp down on COVID-19 misinformation during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The case, initiated last year by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri, has highlighted a widespread conservative criticism that social media companies are censoring right-wing voices on their platforms, in violation of their free speech rights.

And lower courts have thus far upheld that view, issuing decisions that argue Biden officials used coercion to influence the companies’ content moderation decisions.

Here is everything you need to know to get up to speed on the continuing legal drama.

How did this court case start?

On May 5, 2022, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit that accused Biden officials of pressuring tech companies to suppress free speech “under the guise of combating ‘misinformation’”.

Some of Biden’s top staff were named in the suit, including his chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci, who led the country’s COVID-19 response.

To support their censorship argument, Landry and Schmitt pointed to efforts on Twitter, Facebook and other major social media platforms to label or remove content that questioned, for example, the efficacy of face masks or vaccines in limiting the spread of the virus.

Those attempts to remove alleged misinformation, they argued, amounted to a violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects free speech.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry speaks during general session at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas, U.S., August 4, 2022
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry is among the plaintiffs spearheading a lawsuit against the Biden administration’s social media collaborations, in the name of free speech [File: Go Nakamura/Reuters]

What’s at stake?

The lawsuit pits the campaign against misinformation against free speech rights, even when that speech might be false or deceptive.

Its outcome could determine the extent to which the US government is able to collaborate with social media companies during major national crises — whether they be pandemics or controversial elections.

A successful lawsuit could also score political points for Republicans who claim their views have been curtailed by excessive social media policing.

What is the injunction?

US Judge Terry Doughty, appointed under former President Donald Trump to the Western District of Louisiana, was the first to weigh the case, and he largely agreed with the plaintiffs.

On July 4, he issued a preliminary injunction that was broad in scope, barring Biden officials from meeting or communicating with social media companies about the “removal, deletion, suppression or reduction” of content.

The injunction did carve out exceptions, allowing Biden officials to correspond with social media employees about criminal activity, national security threats and other matters of public concern.

But in his 155-page ruling, Doughty echoed fears about government interference in social media, saying the evidence suggests “an almost dystopian scenario”.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, a period perhaps best characterized by widespread doubt and uncertainty, the United States Government seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth,’” he wrote.

A person in a mask walks by the New York Twitter offices after they announced they will close their re-opened offices effective immediately in response to updated CDC guidelines during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., July 29, 2021.
The lawsuit highlights actions the Biden administration took during the COVID-19 pandemic to tamp down on what it considered misinformation about vaccines and other health measures [File: Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

What did the appeals court say?

Last Friday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans likewise weighed in, after the Biden administration challenged the injunction.

The three-member bench, which leans conservative, upheld the injunction — but the court did limit its far-reaching scope, calling it “overbroad”.

The appeals court also dropped some government agencies from the injunction, like the Department of State. Instead, the revised injunction applies only to officials from the White House, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nevertheless, the court did assert that the Biden administration “coerced the platforms to make their moderation decisions by way of intimidating messages and threats”.

Where does the case go next?

On Thursday, the Biden administration took its attempt to lift the injunction to the US Supreme Court.

And within hours, Justice Samuel Alito responded, with an order that freezes the injunction through September 22, to give Biden officials time to organise a formal appeal.

The decision fell to Alito, a conservative justice, because he is responsible for reviewing emergency appeals from the Fifth Circuit, which includes Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Putting the injunction on hold allows the Biden administration to continue business as usual, at least temporarily. The administration has denied threatening or coercing social media companies, saying instead that officials “promoted responsible actions” but otherwise respected the “independent choices” of the platforms.

But that argument could face an uphill battle if the case reaches the nation’s highest court, where a 6-3 conservative majority currently holds power.

Source: Al Jazeera