Supreme Court temporarily blocks limits on White House communication with social media firms | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Supreme Court temporarily blocks limits on White House communication with social media firms

The White House turned to the justices after red states convinced lower courts that the government targeted protected speech in its fight against election and pandemic misinformation.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily blocked an appeals court ruling that the Biden administration suppressed protected speech it considered misinformation.

The White House and leaders of several federal agencies are facing a lawsuit from the Republican attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, arguing that the government’s efforts to combat misinformation on elections and Covid-19 vaccines amounted to suppression of protected speech. The states argue that the administration’s activities targeted right-wing and conservative political views. 

“This administration has promoted responsible actions to protect public health, safety and security when confronted by challenges like a deadly pandemic and foreign attacks on our elections,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement to Courthouse News. “Our consistent view remains that social media platforms have a critical responsibility to take account of the effects their platforms are having on the American people, but make independent choices about the information they present.”

In asking for an injunction, the Biden administration reiterates its contention that any decisions to moderate posts were made by private social media companies, not the government. Allowing the lower court’s ruling to stand would be “applying federal constitutional constraints to the decisions of private social media companies regarding the content appearing on their own platforms,” the application says.

“Rather than any pattern of coercive threats backed by sanctions, the record reflects a back-and-forth in which the government and platforms often shared goals and worked together, sometimes disagreed, and occasionally became frustrated with one another, as all parties articulated and pursued their own goals and interests during an unprecedented pandemic,” the document reads.

The lawsuit claims YouTube censored the Louisiana Department of Justice, taking down footage the state posted criticizing mask mandates and Covid-19 lockdown measures. The White House digital director for the government’s Covid-19 response team also allegedly emailed Twitter concerning an anti-Covid vaccine tweet by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 

Several individuals are also part of the lawsuit, including Jim Hoft, owner and editor-in-chief of The Gateway Pundit, a far-right news website. Hoft often promotes conspiracy theories and claims his critiques of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who led the administration’s pandemic response, got him suspended from Twitter. 

The application for a stay says the individuals lack standing because they haven’t shown that moderation of their posts happened in direct response to government action.

In a lengthy Fourth of July ruling, U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, a Trump appointee, ordered the government to cease communications aiming to remove protected speech from social media platforms. The order applied to the departments of Justice; Treasury; State; Health and Human Services; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the FBI.

Doughty found that the Biden administration had likely violated the First Amendment by assuming a role “similar to an Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth.’” 

The Biden administration appealed, arguing Doughty’s injunction would hurt its ability to provide the public with accurate information and combat foreign influence campaigns and threats to national security.

While a unanimous decision by a Fifth Circuit three-judge panel limited Doughty’s ruling, it upheld restrictions on the White House’s attempts to coerce or significantly encourage social media companies from removing content but did not completely restrict the government’s contact with them. 

In its application to the Supreme Court, the White House calls Doughty’s ruling “an unprecedented injunction” that places him as “the superintendent of the executive branch’s communications with and about social media platforms.” It said the ruling “flouts bedrock principles” of the Constitution.

“A central dimension of presidential power is the use of the office’s bully pulpit to seek to persuade Americans — and American companies — to act in ways that the president believes would advance the public interest,” the document says. “Of course, the government cannot punish people for expressing different views. Nor can it threaten to punish the media or other intermediaries for disseminating disfavored speech. But there is a fundamental distinction between persuasion and coercion.” 

The panel’s ruling included a stay that expires Monday. The government plans to submit its petition for Supreme Court consideration on Oct. 13.

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Categories / Appeals, Courts, Government

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