Supreme Court rules in favor of Biden administration in social media case

The Supreme Court handed the Biden administration a major practical victory Wednesday, rejecting a Republican challenge that sought to block the government from reaching out to social media platforms to combat what it said was misinformation.

The court ruled that the states and users who had challenged those interactions had not suffered the kind of direct harm that gave them the right to sue.

The decision, by a vote of 6 to 3, left for another day fundamental questions about what limits the First Amendment places on the government's power to influence technology companies that are the primary gatekeepers of information in the Internet age .

The case arose from a flurry of communications from administration officials urging the platforms to remove posts on topics such as the coronavirus vaccine and allegations of voter fraud. The attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, both Republicans, have sued, along with three doctors, the owner of a right-wing website that often traffics in conspiracy theories and an activist worried that Facebook had suppressed her posts about the alleged side effects of the coronavirus vaccine.

“Plaintiffs, with no concrete connection between their injuries and the defendants' conduct, ask us to conduct a years-long review of communications between dozens of federal officials, across multiple agencies, with multiple social media platforms, on multiple topics,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the majority. “This court's doctrine prevents us from exercising such general legal control over the other branches of government.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch, dissented.

“For months,” Justice Alito wrote, “high-ranking government officials have relentlessly pressured Facebook to suppress Americans' free speech. Because the Court unjustifiably refuses to address this grave threat to the First Amendment, I respectfully dissent.”

The White House welcomed the ruling. “The Supreme Court's decision is the right one and helps ensure that the Biden Administration can continue our important work with technology companies to protect the safety and security of the American people,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, press secretary of the White House. a declaration.

Andrew Bailey, Missouri's attorney general, said he will continue to try to “build the wall of separation between technology and the state.”

“The situation is clear: the Deep State pressured and forced social media companies to remove truthful speech simply because they were conservative,” he said in a statement. “Today's ruling does not dispute that.”

By sidestepping First Amendment issues in the case, Justice Alito wrote in his dissent, the court harmed free expression.

“If the lower courts' assessment of the voluminous record is correct,” he wrote, “this is one of the most important free speech cases to come to this court in recent years.”

The plaintiffs alleged that many of the government's contacts with social media companies violated the First Amendment; Judge Barrett did not address this topic. But in a particularly sharp note, he criticized Judge Terry A. Doughty of the Federal District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, who had issued an injunction barring further contact to address what he said could be “the most massive attack Against Free Speech in The History of the United States.”

Judge Barrett wrote critically of Judge Doughty's “factual findings, many of which unfortunately appear to be clearly incorrect.” Among his examples was an alleged “censorship request” by the administration cited in the judge's opinion.

“The document cited says nothing about 'censorship requests,'” Judge Barrett wrote. “Rather, in response to a White House official asking Twitter to remove an identity account of President Biden's niece, Twitter told the official about a portal he could use to report similar issues.”

In dissent, Justice Alito seemed willing to accept Justice Doughty's findings, along with their implications.

“Our country's response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been and remains a matter of enormous medical, social, political, geopolitical, and economic importance, and our dedication to a free marketplace of ideas requires that dissenting opinions on such matters be permitted “, he has declared. she wrote. “I assume that much of what social media users had to say about Covid-19 and the pandemic had little lasting value. Some were undoubtedly false or misleading, while others could be downright dangerous. But now we know that valuable speeches have also been suppressed.”

He elaborated on this last point in a footnote on the debate over the origin of the virus, listing evidence that it had leaked from a laboratory. This theory, long embraced by many conservatives who argue that China has shirked responsibility for the pandemic, is now generally recognized as plausible if unproven.

Judge Doughty, appointed by President Donald J. Trump, issued a 10-part injunction prohibiting countless officials from “threatening, pressuring, or coercing social media companies in any manner to remove, delete, suppress, or reduce the published content of posts containing protected content”. free speech.”

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, unanimously reduced the injunction, but not by much.

The commission, in an unsigned opinion, said administration officials remained overly involved with the platforms or used threats to pressure them into action. The commission issued an injunction barring many officials from significantly forcing or encouraging social media companies to remove content protected by the First Amendment.

Two members of the panel, Judges Edith B. Clement and Jennifer W. Elrod, were appointed by President George W. Bush. The third, Judge Don R. Willett, was appointed by Trump.

Judge Barrett wrote that the plaintiffs had failed to overcome at least two daunting hurdles in their attempt to establish what was necessary to demonstrate standing: that the government had caused their harm and that they would face the prospect of harm futures.

The first problem, he said, is that social media companies are independent actors with a demonstrated commitment to tackling misinformation before and regardless of government encouragement.

Second, he said, whatever may have happened in the past, particularly in the midst of the pandemic, a plaintiff seeking an injunction must demonstrate a real threat of future harm.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the majority opinion.

In dissent, Justice Alito focused on the experience of Jill Hines, a health activist, who helped lead Health Freedom Louisiana, a group that opposed mask and vaccine mandates.

“Hines demonstrated that when he sued, Facebook was censoring his Covid-related posts and groups,” Justice Alito wrote. “And because the White House pushed Facebook to change its censorship policies, Hines' censorship was, at least in part, caused by the White House and could be remedied by an injunction against the continuation of such conduct.”

In May, the court ruled unanimously in favor of the National Rifle Association in a case that raised similar issues. In that case, NRA v. Vullo, the justices said the group could bring a First Amendment claim against a New York state official who encouraged companies to stop doing business with it.

That decision, combined with the decision in Wednesday's case, Murthy v. Missouri, no. 23-411, sent a disturbing message, Justice Alito wrote.

“What officials did in this case was more subtle than the misguided censorship found unconstitutional in the Vullo case, but it was no less coercive,” he wrote. “And because of the high positions of the offenders, it was even more dangerous.”

And he adds: “The officials who read today's decision together with Vullo will understand the message. If a coercive campaign is carried out with sufficient sophistication, it could succeed. This is not a message this Court should be sending.”

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