The Federal Court of Appeals judges were particularly troubled by one email where a White House official said they were “considering our options” for how to retaliate against the platforms
A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the White House and the FBI both likely engaged in unconstitutional campaigns to pressure social media companies to censor content the administration disliked, and the judges ordered them to stop using coercive tactics against the tech companies.
But the judges said a lower court’s ruling went too far in silencing the White House and FBI. The appeals court said they are free to make their case to the social media platforms, as long as it doesn’t cross the line into coercion.
The new ruling is a legal victory for the White House, but still amounts to an embarrassment, with the three-judge panel unanimously finding that President Biden’s team engaged in censorship.
“On multiple occasions, the officials coerced the platforms into direct action via urgent, uncompromising demands to moderate content,” the court concluded. “In doing so, the officials were persistent and angry. And, more importantly, the officials threatened—both expressly and implicitly—to retaliate against inaction.”
The judges said that persuasion is fine, but the government cannot go beyond that.
The White House had argued that its pressure was free speech, protected by the First Amendment.
The judges rejected that.
They highlighted emails from senior White House officials demanding posts be taken down “ASAP,” or “slowing” the reach of other posts. The judges were particularly troubled by one email where a White House official said they were “considering our options” for how to retaliate against the platforms.
Facebook, Google and YouTube “fell in line,” the judges said, working hard to appease the White House and the Surgeon General’s office.
The FBI, too, was guilty of coercion, the court found.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t coerce, but it did “significantly encourage” the platforms to censor content, which is also a violation, the court ruled.
But it disagreed with lower court Judge Terry Doughty’s ruling that Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the State Department and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci’s former stomping grounds, crossed lines.
The judges said that while some of those organizations did communicate with the social media platforms, they didn’t coerce.
Judge Doughty had issued a 10-point injunction barring government officials from encouraging or urging social media platforms to censor content, barring the government from asking for reports on how content moderation was being carried out, barring the government from working with several private entities to identify problematic content, and barring the government from “threatening, pressuring or coercing” the companies to suppress content.
The appeals court tossed all but that last part, and even there the judges narrowed the injunction.
It now reads: “Defendants, and their employees and agents, shall take no actions, formal or informal, directly or indirectly, to coerce or significantly encourage social-media companies to remove, delete, suppress, or reduce, including through altering their algorithms, posted social-media content containing protected free speech. That includes, but is not limited to, compelling the platforms to act, such as by intimating that some form of punishment will follow a failure to comply with any request, or supervising, directing, or otherwise meaningfully controlling the social-media companies’ decision-making processes.”
The injunction applies to more than a dozen named White House officials, leading with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. The injunction also applies to the CDC and the FBI — particularly Laura Dehmlow, Section Chief of the FBI Foreign Influence Task Force, and Elvis M. Chan, Supervisory Special Agent of Squad CY-1 in the FBI San Francisco Division.
| Law & the Courts
In NCLA Victory, Fifth Circuit Upholds Key Part of Government Social Media Censorship Injunction
Washington, DC (September 8, 2023)—The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has agreed with NCLA that officials from the White House, CDC, FBI and the U.S. Surgeon General’s office violated the First Amendment by coercing or significantly encouraging social media platforms to censor our clients. The panel upheld the most important portion of U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty’s preliminary injunction order in Missouri, et al. v. Biden, et al., prohibiting those officials from pressuring social media companies to suppress constitutionally protected speech. The panel decision modified the injunction against federal officials to now read:
“Defendants, and their employees and agents, shall take no actions, formal or informal, directly or indirectly, to coerce or significantly encourage social-media companies to remove, delete, suppress, or reduce, including through altering their algorithms, posted social-media content containing protected free speech. That includes, but is not limited to, compelling the platforms to act, such as by intimating that some form of punishment will follow a failure to comply with any request, or supervising, directing, or otherwise meaningfully controlling the social-media companies’ decision-making processes.”
The New Civil Liberties Alliance celebrates this landmark victory for our clients, Drs. Jayanta Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorff and Aaron Kheriaty, and Ms. Jill Hines. At the government’s request, the Fifth Circuit stayed the order for 10 days to give the government time to petition for a writ of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court.
As today’s decision said, “[The platforms] gave the officials access to an expedited reporting system, downgraded or removed flagged posts, and deplatformed users.” The panel continued, “the platforms also changed their internal policies to capture more flagged content and sent steady reports on their moderation activities to the officials … through the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2022 congressional election, and [that] continues to this day.”
The Biden Administration’s years-long censorship campaign has suppressed perspectives contradicting government-approved views on hotly disputed topics like whether natural immunity to Covid-19 exists, Covid-19 vaccine concerns, the virus’s origins, and mask mandate efficacy. The vast, coordinated censorship campaign has silenced public voices including influential doctors and scientists. Drs. Bhattacharya, Kulldorff and Kheriaty, and Ms. Hines have all been blacklisted, shadow-banned, de-boosted, throttled, and censored on social media.
Importantly, the Court recognized that the Plaintiffs did “not challenge the social-media platforms’ content-moderation policies.” Rather, Plaintiffs challenged the government’s unlawful efforts to influence “enforcement of those policies.” The government gravely harmed the ability of NCLA’s clients to convey their views to the public, and it deprived Americans of their right to hear opinions that differ from the government’s. Judge Doughty strikingly described the Administration’s conduct as “arguably the most massive attack against free speech in United States history” and “akin to an Orwellian Ministry of Truth.” Today’s order should stop that conduct.
NCLA released the following statements:
“In an unprecedented, historic decision, the Fifth Circuit has recognized that the conduct of the White House, CDC, Surgeon General, and FBI violated Americans’ First Amendment rights. The government cannot coerce or encourage social media companies to censor views it dislikes. This decision vindicates the Plaintiffs’ rights and protects the free speech of all Americans.”
— Jenin Younes, Litigation Counsel, NCLA
“The Biden Administration’s coordinated censorship campaign against the American people ends today. The Fifth Circuit’s decision details blatantly unlawful conduct by multiple agencies, and its order forbids the government’s widespread contempt for the First Amendment from continuing in no uncertain terms.”
— Mark Chenoweth, President and General Counsel, NCLA
Missouri, et al. v. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., et al
Public statements, emails, and publicly released documents establish that the President of the United States and other senior officials in the Biden Administration have violated the First Amendment by directing social-media companies to censor viewpoints that conflicted with the government’s messaging on Covid-19.
NCLA joined the lawsuit, State of Missouri ex rel. Schmitt, et al. v. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., et al., representing renowned epidemiologists and co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, Drs. Jayanta Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff, as well as Dr. Aaron Kheriaty and Jill Hines. Social media platforms, acting at the federal government’s behest, repeatedly censored NCLA’s clients for articulating views on those platforms in opposition to government-approved views on Covid-19 issues. This insidious censorship was the direct result of the federal government’s campaign to silence those who voice perspectives that deviate from those of the Biden Administration. Government officials’ public threats to punish social media companies that did not do their bidding demonstrate this linkage, as do emails from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to social media companies.
This sort of censorship, which strikes at the heart of what the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect—free speech, especially political speech—has constituted unlawful government action. Moreover, this state action has deprived Americans of their right to hear the views of those who are being silenced, a First Amendment corollary of the right to free speech.