Two months after President Biden took office, his top digital adviser emailed officials at Facebook urging them to do more to limit the spread of “vaccine hesitancy” on the social media platform.
At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, officials held “weekly synchronous” meetings with Facebook, once emailing the company 16 “misinformation” posts. And in the summer of 2021, the chief assistant to the surgeon general repeatedly urged Google, Facebook and Twitter to do more to combat misinformation.
The examples are among dozens of interactions described in a 155-page ruling by a federal judge in Louisiana, who on Tuesday imposed temporary but sweeping limits on how members of Mr. Biden’s administration can engage in social media. The government appealed the decision on Wednesday.
The case is a flashpoint in the broader effort by conservatives to document what they claim is a liberal conspiracy by Democrats and tech companies to silence their views. It strikes fury on the right about how social media companies have handled stories about the origins of Covid, the 2020 election and Hunter Biden, the president’s son.
The end result could shape the future of First Amendment law in a rapidly changing media environment and change how far the government can go in trying to prevent the spread of potentially dangerous information, especially in an election or during crises like a pandemic.
The government’s actions at the heart of the case were intended largely as public health measures. But Tuesday’s order instead looked at the issue through the filter of partisan culture wars — asking whether the government violated the First Amendment by illegally threatening the social media companies to censor speech that Mr. Biden’s administration found distasteful and potentially harmful to the public. .
The case was brought by two Republican attorneys general and five individuals who campaigned against masks, argued vaccines didn’t work, fought a blockade and pushed drugs that medical experts denounced as ineffective, such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
And it is overseen by Judge Terry A. Doughty, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump and has previously expressed little skepticism about debunked claims by vaccine skeptics. In one previous case, Judge Doughty accepted as fact the claim that “Covid-19 vaccines do not prevent transmission of the disease.”
Judge Doughty was confirmed by the Senate in 2018, by a vote of 98 to 0, to the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, which was seen in recent years as favorable to legal proceedings. He ruled against the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for Head Start preschool programs last year, saying that the “liberty interests of individuals ordered to take the Covid-19 vaccine outweigh any interest generated by the compulsory administration of vaccines.”
The judge’s preliminary order is already in effect. A previously scheduled threat identification meeting on Thursday between State Department officials and social media officials was abruptly canceled by officials, according to two people familiar with the decision, which was reported earlier by The Washington Post.
Administration officials said the Justice Department is examining the judge’s lengthy order to determine what activities should be halted when it comes to communicating its concerns about the spread of information.
“The court’s order, which prevents the government from even talking to tech companies about their content moderation policies, deals a huge blow to vital government efforts to harden American democracy against threats of misinformation.” Leah Litman and Laurence H. Tribe wrote on the Just Security blog on Wednesday.
“Each step in the reasoning behind the decision manages to be more extraordinary than the last,” the pair wrote.
White House officials have vowed to abide by the judge’s order, which will remain in place as the case moves forward unless a higher court overturns the order.
“But we will not apologize for promoting responsible actions to protect public health, safety and security when we face challenges like a deadly pandemic or foreign attacks on our elections,” White House spokeswoman Sharon Yang said. “Nor will we apologize for believing that social media have a responsibility — a critical responsibility — to consider the effects their platforms have on the American people.”
The broad reach of the decision could make it difficult for the administration to comply, several legal experts said.
It allows the government to continue to notify the platforms of certain content, including posts about criminal activity, threats to national security and foreign election interference. But a subset of that content may also be protected by the First Amendment, the kind of speech that the judge orders that management cannot discuss with the companies.
And the line between the two could be blurred, said Genevieve Lakier, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, who called the judge’s rulings “pretty significant departures from precedent.”
“The result is this incredibly broad order that appears to prevent huge parts of the executive branch from communicating with the speech platforms,” she said.
“Are government officials supposed to understand for themselves what the threat is serious enough that they can communicate about it to the platforms, or not serious and then they can’t?” she said. “How are they going to draw this line?”
In his order, Judge Doughty described what he called a campaign by officials in the White House and at government agencies to pressure social media companies.
In one instance, the judge wrote that aides to Jill Biden, the first lady, repeatedly pestered Twitter executives to remove a video that was edited to make her appear profane to a group of children. Twitter has removed the video.
In another case, Judge Doughty wrote that a top Biden official asked Twitter to remove a parody account linked to Finnegan Biden, Hunter Biden’s daughter and President Biden’s granddaughter. He wrote that 45 minutes after the request, Twitter suspended the account.
After Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, urged social media companies to “take action against misinformation overspreaders” in July 2021, the companies removed information posted by 17 accounts linked to the “Disinformation Dozen,” a group of people who often distributed false anti-vaccination claims.
Judge Doughty said the decision by the social media companies came after several emails, calls and meetings over weeks between Mr Murthy’s top aides and senior executives at several of the social media companies.
“The public and private pressure from the White House appears to have had its intended effect,” the judge wrote. “All 12 members of the ‘Misinformative Dozen’ have been censored, and pages, groups and accounts linked to the Misinformative Dozen have been removed.”
He also described regular meetings between the companies and the San Francisco field office of the FBI, where he wrote that as many as eight agents were responsible for forwarding concerns about social media to seven tech companies several times a month.
For several pages, Judge Doughty refers to the FBI’s investigation of Hunter Biden’s laptop, suggesting a connection between the government’s contacts with social media and the decision of some of the platforms to remove information about the story.
“The FBI additionally likely misled social media companies into believing the Hunter Biden laptop story was Russian disinformation, which resulted in suppression of the story weeks before the 2020 presidential election,” the judge wrote in his order.
Conservatives have already begun seizing on such language to fuel their broader political accusations against Mr. Biden and Democrats. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, tweeted: “Big loss for the censorship industrial complex.”
But they are allegations that the president and his aides reject as wrong and misleading.
Administration officials argued in the case that they did not illegally pressure the social media companies. Instead, they said the government has a responsibility to combat the spread of incorrect information through discussions with the companies.
And they say – supported by evidence from several of the social media platforms – that the platforms made independent decisions about what information to promote or remove, without any government control.
Internal files released by Twitter last year document instances when the company turned down requests from the government.
But in Tuesday’s ruling, Judge Doughty found that the administration’s efforts amounted to enforcement of the platforms that violated the First Amendment by essentially substituting private companies on behalf of the government.
The judge said that pressure went beyond aggressively encouraging the platforms to eliminate positions – which, he said, would itself violate the First Amendment – and amounted to coercion of some of the largest companies in America by the “most powerful office in the world.”
Jeff Kosseff, an associate professor of cybersecurity law at the U.S. Naval Academy, said the government will have to figure out how broadly Judge Doughty’s bans should apply.
“The biggest problem for clarity is who this actually applies to – and whether it applies to them in their personal capacity, their official capacity or both,” he said. “Does he want an office assistant at the CDC to not be able to express his views on his own time?”