Federal judge restricts Biden officials’ contacts with social media sites
A federal judge in Louisiana on Tuesday barred portions of the Biden administration from communicating with social media platforms about extensive online content, a decision that could limit efforts to combat false and misleading narratives about the coronavirus pandemic and other issues.
The ruling, which could have significant First Amendment implications, is an important development in a bitter legal battle over the limits and limits of online speech.
Republicans have often accused the government of improperly partnering with social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to censor critics, saying the platforms disproportionately remove right-wing content. Democrats say the platforms have failed to adequately address misinformation and hate speech, leading to dangerous consequences, including violence.
In the ruling, Judge Terry A. Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana said parts of the government, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, could not speak to social media companies “The purpose, the distance Demand, encourage, pressure, or in any way induce the deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected freedom of expression.”
Judge Doughty, granting an injunction, said authorities could not flag certain posts on the social media platforms or request reports of their efforts to remove content. The ruling said the government could still inform the platforms about posts describing crimes, threats to national security or foreign attempts to influence elections.
Courts are increasingly being forced to comment on such questions – with the risk that decades of legal norms that regulated the expression of opinion on the Internet will be turned on their head.
Republican attorneys general in Texas and Florida are defending first-of-its-kind state laws that ban internet platforms from taking down certain political content, and legal experts say those cases could eventually go to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court earlier this year refused to limit a law that allows platforms to avoid legal liability for content users post on the sites.
Tuesday’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by attorneys general for Louisiana and Missouri is likely to be appealed by the Biden administration, but its implications could be far-reaching, forcing government officials, including law enforcement, to fail to notify the platforms of problematic content.
Government officials have argued that they have no authority to order the removal of posts or entire accounts, but they have long worked with Big Tech to crack down on illegal or harmful material, particularly in cases of child sexual abuse, human trafficking and other criminal activity. This included regular meetings to share information about Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
A White House spokesman said the Justice Department is reviewing the ruling and evaluating possible next steps.
“This administration has promoted responsible action to protect public health and safety when faced with challenges such as a deadly pandemic and foreign attacks on our elections,” the spokesman said in a statement. “We continue to believe that social media platforms have a critical responsibility to consider the impact of their platforms on the American people, but to make independent decisions about the information they present.”
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, declined to comment. Twitter did not comment and Google did not respond to a request for comment.
Senator Eric Schmitt, a Missouri Republican and former state attorney general, said on Twitter that the ruling was a “victory for the First Amendment this Independence Day.”
The question of government influence on social media is becoming increasingly partisan.
The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has taken up the cause, suffocating universities and think tanks that have been researching the issue with tiresome information requests and subpoenas.
Since taking over Twitter last year, Elon Musk has made a similar argument, leaking internal company documents to select journalists who suggest what they believe was collusion between company and government officials. While this is far from proven, some of the documents Mr Musk disclosed ended up in the lawsuit’s arguments.
The defendants, the social media companies and experts dealing with disinformation have argued that there is no evidence of systematic government efforts to censor individuals in violation of the First Amendment.
At the same time, emails and text messages released in the case judged by Judge Doughty have shown instances where officials have complained to social media officials about influential users spreading disinformation, particularly around the coronavirus pandemic .
The ruling came amid a lawsuit filed last year by attorneys general for Missouri and Louisiana, both Republicans, and four other individual plaintiffs: Jayanta Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff, epidemiologists who questioned the government’s handling of the pandemic; Aaron Kheriaty, a professor who was fired from the University of California, Irvine, for refusing to be vaccinated against the coronavirus; Jill Hines, director of Health Freedom Louisiana, an organization accused of disinformation; and Jim Hoft, founder of Gateway Pundit, a right-wing news site.
Although the lawsuit named President Biden and dozens of officials in 11 government agencies as defendants, some of the named cases occurred during the Trump administration.
Judge Doughty, appointed to federal court by President Donald J. Trump in 2017, has made the court a benevolent arena for conservative cases, having previously blocked the Biden administration’s national vaccination mandate for healthcare workers and lifted its ban on new federal courts had leases for oil and gas wells.
It allowed plaintiffs extensive investigation and testimony from prominent officials such as Anthony S. Fauci, then the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, who told plaintiffs’ attorneys that he was not involved in any discussions regarding censorship of online content.
Judge Doughty expressed skepticism about that argument in March when he denied a motion to dismiss the case.
Some First Amendment law and misinformation experts criticized Tuesday’s ruling.
“The government cannot be violating the First Amendment simply by engaging with platforms about their content moderation decisions and policies,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “If the court says this, it’s quite a radical suggestion that isn’t supported by the case law.”
Mr Jaffer added that the government must strike a balance between disseminating false speech and using informal constraints that tend towards censorship. “Unfortunately, Judge Doughty’s order does not reflect a serious attempt to reconcile the competing principles,” he said.
Judge Doughty’s decision said the injunction would remain in effect while proceedings in the lawsuit proceed, unless he or a higher court rules otherwise.
Emma Goldberg contributed to the coverage.