“This kind of censorship is unconstitutional, it is un-American and will go down as a sad chapter in American History and that we can close it down here and now.”
Biden administration violated First Amendment over COVID-19 content on social media, court of appeals rules
The Biden administration “ran afoul” of the First Amendment by trying to pressure social media platforms over controversial COVID-19 content, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans ruled Friday.
In its 75-page ruling, the appeals court panel, made up of two George W. Bush nominees and one Trump nominee, said that President Biden, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FBI and the surgeon general cannot “coerce” social media platforms to remove content it deems problematic.
However, in its ruling, the court threw out language from a Louisiana judge in July who had ruled that the government could not contact social media platforms to urge them to take content down.
Under the new ruling, the administration has 10 days to seek a Supreme Court review.
The ruling stems from a Louisiana lawsuit that accuses the Biden administration of threatening platforms like X, formerly Twitter, and Facebook, with antitrust lawsuits or changes to federal law that protect their liability and of silencing conservative voices.
The lawsuit was filed by the states of Missouri and Louisiana, a conservative website owner, and four people opposed to the administration’s COVID-19 policy.
The ruling said the administration “coerced the platforms to make their moderation decisions by way of intimidating messages and threats of adverse consequences” and “significantly encouraged the platforms’ decisions by commandeering their decision-making processes, both in violation of the First Amendment,” according to the Washington Post.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry called the ruling a “major win against censorship.”
“Fifth Circuit just unanimously affirmed Judge Doughty’s injunction against White House, CDC, FBI and others — giving Americans and #FreedomOfSpeech a major win against censorship, totalitarianism, and Biden. #FirstAmendment,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
Court eases curbs on Biden administration’s contacts with social media firms
A federal appeals court on Friday ruled the White House, the FBI and top health officials may not “coerce or significantly encourage” social-media companies to remove content the Biden administration considers misinformation, including about COVID-19.
But the three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed much of an injunction issued by a Louisiana judge that restricted Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration from communicating with social-media companies.
The court placed that injunction on hold for 10 days so the administration could seek the U.S. Supreme Court’s review. The U.S. Department of Justice, which is defending the administration, declined to comment.
The Biden administration has argued that it asked social-media companies to take down posts it considered to be harmful misinformation, but never forced them to do so.
The lower-court judge found that U.S. officials illegally coerced Meta Platforms’ (META.O) Facebook, Alphabet’s (GOOGL.O) YouTube and X Corp, formerly Twitter, into censoring posts related to COVID-19 and allegations of election fraud.
The 5th Circuit agreed with the Republican state attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, who had alleged that numerous federal officials coerced social-media platforms into censoring content in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s free speech protections.
While officials have an interest in engaging with social-media firms about misinformation, “the government is not permitted to advance these interests to the extent that it engages in viewpoint suppression,” the panel wrote.
But the court, in an unsigned opinion by three judges appointed by Republican presidents, vacated much of U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty’s injunction, with the exception of a provision concerning alleged coercion, which it narrowed.
The 5th Circuit said the narrower injunction applied to the White House, the surgeon general, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the FBI, but would no longer apply to other federal officials covered by the lower court order.
“Social-media platforms’ content-moderation decisions must be theirs and theirs alone,” the court wrote, as it barred officials at those agencies from coercing or significantly encouraging social media companies to remove content.
The ruling was hailed on X by Missouri’s Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who said it would stop federal officials “from violating the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans.”
The attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri, along with several social-media users, had sued last year, saying Facebook, YouTube and Twitter engaged in censorship as a result of repeated urging by government officials and threats of heightened regulatory enforcement.
The lawsuit said the censored views included content questioning anti-COVID-19 measures such as masks and vaccine mandates and allegations of election fraud.
Doughty, whose courthouse in Monroe, Louisiana, has become a favored venue for Republican challenges to Biden’s policies, in July sided with the states, finding that the federal government’s “Orwellian” efforts violated the First Amendment.
Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston and Jonathan Stempel and Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Stephen Coates