WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday completely blocked a lower court ruling that limited the Biden administration’s ability to communicate with social media companies about controversial content on issues like Covid-19.
Conclusion in A Short unsigned order A Louisiana-based judge stayed the ruling in July, barring certain agencies and officials from meeting with companies to discuss whether to block specific content.
The Supreme Court also agreed to take up the government’s appeal immediately, meaning it will hear arguments and issue a ruling on the merits during its current term, which runs until the end of June.
Three conservative justices indicated they would have rejected the application: Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.
“At this point in our nation’s history, I fear that some will see what the Court has done as a green light for the government to use heavy-handed tactics to advance the views of an increasingly dominant media. This is very unfortunate,” Alito wrote in a dissenting opinion.
GOP attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri, along with five social media users, filed the underlying lawsuit, alleging that US government officials went too far in labeling social media companies’ records, particularly those related to Covid-19, as coercive. Individual plaintiffs include opponents of the Covid-19 lockdown and Jim Hoft, owner of the right-wing website Gateway Pundit.
They claim the government’s actions violate free speech protections under the Constitution’s First Amendment.
“This is the worst First Amendment violation in our nation’s history. We look forward to taking down Joe Biden’s vast audit agency in the nation’s highest court,” Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey said in a statement Friday.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington declined to comment.
The suit makes various claims related to actions taken in 2020 and before, including efforts to prevent the spread of misinformation about Covid-19 and the presidential election. Donald Trump was president at the time, but the district court ruling focused on actions taken by the government after President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.
Judge Terry Doughty, a Trump appointee, barred authorities from “soliciting, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content that constitutes protected speech without any connection to social media organizations.”
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed the scope of Doughty’s injunction. But the appeals court urged the White House, the FBI and top health officials not to “coerce or substantially encourage” social media companies to remove content the Biden administration deems misleading.
Among the officials affected were White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
The administration appealed to the Supreme Court, hoping to block Doughty’s ruling entirely.
The District Court decision was stayed while the Supreme Court decided what action to take.
Solicitor General Elizabeth Preloger wrote in court papers that Doughty’s decision was an “unprecedented ban” that “violates fundamental principles” of federal law.
“The court has placed unprecedented limits on the ability of the president’s closest aides to address matters of public concern, the FBI’s ability to address threats to national security, and the CDC’s ability to release public health information on platforms that are ‘requested,'” he added.
Prelogger argued that the original ban was “broad in scope,” saying it “covers thousands of federal officials and employees and applies to communications with all social media platforms related to restricting content on topics such as national security and criminal matters.”
Attorneys for the states and plaintiffs said in court documents that lower courts have found “egregious, systematic First Amendment violations” by the government, forcing officials to “censor unfavorable viewpoints.”