A federal judge in Louisiana on Tuesday restricted the Biden administration from communicating with social media platforms about broad content online, a ruling that could slow efforts to combat false and misleading narratives about the coronavirus pandemic and other issues.
The order, which could have significant First Amendment implications, is a major development in a raging legal battle over the limits and boundaries of speech online.
It was a victory for Republicans, who have often accused social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube of disproportionately removing right-wing content, sometimes in collaboration with the government. Democrats say the platforms have failed to adequately police misinformation and hate speech, leading to dangerous outcomes, including violence.
In the governanceJudge Terry A. Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana said parts of the government, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, cannot talk to social media companies to “ the goal”. incite, encourage, pressure or induce in any way the removal, removal, suppression or reduction of content containing protected free speech.”
In granting a preliminary injunction, Judge Doughty said the agencies cannot flag specific posts to the social media platforms or request reports of their efforts to remove content. The ruling said the government could still notify the platforms of posts detailing crimes, national security threats or foreign attempts to influence elections.
“If the allegations made by plaintiffs are true, the current case likely involves the most massive attack on free speech in the history of the United States,” the judge said. “The plaintiffs will probably succeed on the merits in establishing that the government used its power to silence the opposition.”
Courts are increasingly forced to weigh in on such matters — with the potential to overturn decades of legal norms that have governed speech online.
The Republican attorneys general of Texas and Florida are defending the first-of-its-kind state laws that prevent online platforms from removing certain political content, and legal experts believe those cases may eventually reach the Supreme Court. The high court this year refused to limit a law that allows the platforms to escape legal responsibility for content that users post to the sites.
The ruling on Tuesday, in a lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri, is likely to be appealed by the Biden administration, but its impact could force government officials, including law enforcement agencies, to refrain from notifying the platforms of disturbing content. .
Government officials have argued that they don’t have the authority to order posts or entire accounts removed, but federal agencies and the tech giants have long worked together to crack down on illegal or harmful material, especially in cases involving child sex abuse, human trafficking and others. criminal activity This also included regular meetings to share information about the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
The White House said the Justice Department is reviewing the decision and evaluating its next steps.
“Our consistent view remains that social media platforms have a critical responsibility to consider the effects their platforms have on the American people, but make independent choices about the information they present,” the White House said in a statement.
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, declined to comment. Twitter had no comment, and Google did not respond to a request for comment.
Jeff Landry, the Louisiana attorney general, said in a statement that the judge’s order was “historic.” Missouri’s attorney general, Andrew Bailey, hailed the ruling as “a major victory in the fight to defend our most fundamental freedoms.” Both officials are Republicans.
“What a way to celebrate Independence Day,” Mr Bailey said on Twitter.
The issue of government influence over social media has become increasingly partisan.
The Republican majority in the House has taken up the issue, stifling universities and think tanks that have studied the issue with painstaking requests for information and subpoenas.
The judge’s order prohibits government agencies from communicating with some of those outside groups, including the Election Integrity Partnership, the Virality Project and the Stanford Internet Observatory, to encourage the removal of protected speech online. Alex Stamos, the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, who was involved in leading the two other projects, declined to comment.
Since acquiring Twitter last year, Elon Musk has repeated Republican arguments, releasing internal company documents to select journalists suggesting what they claimed was collusion between company and government officials. Although this remains far from proven, some of the documents disclosed by Mr. Musk ended up in the arguments of the trial.
The defendants, the social media companies and experts who study disinformation argued that there was no evidence of a systematic effort by the government to censor individuals in violation of the First Amendment. David Rand, a disinformation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said his understanding was that the government had at most a limited impact on how social media platforms engage in disinformation.
At the same time, emails and text messages released in the case Judge Doughty ruled on showed instances where officials complained to social media administrators when influential users spread misinformation, particularly involving the coronavirus pandemic.
The states said in their lawsuit that they have a “sovereign and proprietary interest in receiving a free flow of information in public discourse on social media.”
In addition to the Missouri and Louisiana attorneys general, the case was brought by four other plaintiffs: Jayanta Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff, epidemiologists who questioned the government’s handling of the pandemic; Aaron Kheriaty, professor dismissed from the University of California, Irvine, for refusing to have a coronavirus vaccination; Jill Hines, director of Health Freedom Louisiana, an organization that was accused of misinformation; and Jim Hoft, founder of Gateway Pundit, a right-wing news site. The four additional plaintiffs said social media sites removed some of their posts.
Although the lawsuit named President Biden and dozens of officials in 11 government agencies as defendants, some of the cited cases 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 national vaccination mandate for health care workers and overturned its ban on new federal leases for oil and gas drilling.
He allowed the plaintiffs extensive discovery and testimony from prominent officials such as Anthony S. Fauci, then the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who told the plaintiffs’ lawyers that he was not involved in any discussions to censor content online.
Some experts on First Amendment law and misinformation criticized Tuesday’s decision.
“It cannot be that the government is violating the First Amendment simply by negotiating with the platforms about their content moderation decisions and policies,” said Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “If that’s what the court says here, it’s a pretty radical proposition that’s not supported by the case law.”
Mr Jaffer added that the government must strike a balance between calling out false speech without stepping into informal enforcement that turns to censorship. “Unfortunately, Judge Doughty’s order does not reflect a serious effort to reconcile the competing principles,” he said.
Judge Doughty’s ruling said the injunction would remain in place while proceedings in the lawsuit continued unless he or a higher court ruled otherwise.
Emma Goldberg contributed reporting.