A federal judge in Louisiana on Tuesday restricted the Biden administration from communicating with social media platforms about a plethora of online content, a ruling that could undercut efforts to combat false and misleading narratives about the coronavirus pandemic and other issues.
The order, which could have major implications for the First Amendment, is a major development in a bitter legal battle over the boundaries and limits of online speech.
It was a victory for Republicans, who have often accused social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube of disproportionately removing right-leaning content and sometimes cooperating with the administration. Democrats say the platforms fail to adequately police misinformation and hate speech, leading to dangerous consequences, including violence.
exist rulingU.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty for the Western District of Louisiana said parts of the government, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the FBI, cannot talk to social media companies for “purposes.” Urge, encourage, pressure, or induce in any way to remove, delete, suppress, or diminish content that contains protected free speech. “
In granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Doughty said the agencies cannot flag specific posts on social media platforms or require reporting of their efforts to remove content. The government can still notify the platforms of posts detailing crimes, national security threats or foreign attempts to influence elections, the ruling said.
“If plaintiffs’ allegations are true, this case involves arguably the largest attack on free speech in American history,” the judge said. “Plaintiffs will likely succeed on the merits to demonstrate that the government has used its power to suppress opposition.”
Courts are increasingly being forced to weigh such issues — threatening to upend decades of legal norms governing speech online.
Republican attorneys general in Texas and Florida are defending the first state laws banning internet platforms from removing certain political content, and legal experts believe the cases could eventually reach the Supreme Court. This year the high court refused to limit a law that would allow platforms to escape legal liability for content users post on their sites.
The ruling in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri is likely to be appealed by the Biden administration, but its implications could force government officials, including law enforcement agencies, to refrain from notifying platforms of troubling content.
Administration officials have argued that they do not have the authority to order removals of posts or entire accounts, but federal agencies and tech giants have long worked together to take action against illegal or harmful material, especially when it involves child sexual abuse, human trafficking and other criminal activity. This also includes regular meetings to share information about ISIS and other terrorist groups.
The White House said the Justice Department was reviewing the ruling and evaluating next steps.
“Our consistent view remains that social media platforms have important responsibilities to consider the impact their platforms have on the American people, but to make independent choices about the information they provide,” the White House said in a statement.
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, declined to comment. Twitter did not comment, and Google did not respond to a request for comment.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said in a statement the judge’s order was “historic.” Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey hailed the ruling as “a monumental victory in the fight to defend our most fundamental freedoms.” Both officials are Republicans.
“What a great way to celebrate Independence Day,” Mr Bailey said on Twitter.
The question of government influence on social media is becoming increasingly partisan.
The Republican majority in the House has already taken to tackling the issue, suffocating universities and think tanks by studying it with onerous requests for information and subpoenas.
The judge’s order prohibits government agencies from communicating with some outside groups, including the Partnership for Election Integrity, The Viral Project and the Stanford Internet Observatory, to facilitate the removal of protected online speech. Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, who co-leads two other projects, declined to comment.
Since acquiring Twitter last year, Elon Musk has echoed the Republican sentiment by releasing internal company documents to selected reporters, alluding to their claims that the company colluded with government officials. While this is far from proven, some of the documents Musk disclosed ended up among the arguments in the lawsuit.
The defendants, social media companies and experts who study disinformation argue that there is no evidence that the government systematically censors individuals in violation of the First Amendment. David Land, a misinformation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said his understanding is that governments have limited influence, at best, on how social media platforms handle misinformation.
Meanwhile, emails and text messages released in Judge Doughty’s case show officials complaining to social media executives when influential users spread false information, especially about the coronavirus pandemic.
The states say in the lawsuit that it is “in their sovereign and exclusive interest to receive the free flow of information in public discourse on social media platforms.”
In addition to the Missouri and Louisiana attorneys general, the case is being brought by four other plaintiffs: Jayanta Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff, the popular Epidemiologist, Questioning Government’s Handling of Pandemic; Aaron Heriarty, Professor fired UC Irvine criticized for refusing to get a coronavirus vaccine; Jill Hines is director of Louisiana Health Freedom, which Accused of false information; Jim Hoft is the founder of the right-wing news site Gateway Pundit. Four other plaintiffs said the social media site removed some of their posts.
While the lawsuit names President Biden and dozens of officials from 11 government agencies as defendants, some of the instances cited occurred during the Trump administration.
Judge Doughty, who was appointed to the federal court by President Donald J. Trump in 2017, has been sympathetic to conservative cases, having previously blocked the Biden administration’s mandate for a national vaccination of health care workers and overturned a bid to vaccinate health care workers. A ban on new oil and gas federal leases. Natural gas drilling.
He allowed plaintiffs access to extensive discovery and testimony from high-profile officials, including Anthony S. Fauci. Fauci, who was the nation’s top infectious disease expert at the time, told the plaintiffs’ attorneys that he was not involved in any discussion of censoring online content.
Some First Amendment law and misinformation experts criticized Tuesday’s ruling.
“It’s not possible for a government to violate the First Amendment simply by interacting with platforms about their content moderation decisions and policies,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute. If that’s what the court said, then that’s a pretty radical claim that’s not supported by case law.”
Jaffer added that the government must strike a balance between calling out false statements and resorting to informal coercion toward censorship. “Unfortunately, Justice Doughty’s order does not reflect a serious effort to reconcile competing principles,” he said.
Judge Doughty’s ruling said the injunction would remain in effect while the proceedings continued, unless he or a higher court ruled differently.
emma goldberg contributed to the report.