A federal appeals court on Friday stayed a judge’s order that prevented much of the Biden administration from talking to social media about content.
The case could have serious First Amendment implications and affect the conduct of social media and their cooperation with government agencies.
In his three-sentence order, a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said the preliminary injunction issued this month by a federal judge in Louisiana will be set aside “until further orders of the court.” The appeals court also called for expedited oral arguments in the case.
In the lawsuit, Missouri, Louisiana and five individuals said President Biden’s campaign, his administration and outside groups pressured social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube to remove content it objected to. That content included conservative claims about the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 presidential election, and a story about Hunter Biden, the president’s son.
The plaintiffs won a victory on July 4, when Judge Terry A. Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana found that they were likely to be able to prove that the Biden administration engaged in an illegal effort to silence speech on social media . platforms
“If the allegations made by the plaintiffs are true,” Judge Doughty wrote, “the present case probably involves the most massive attack on free speech in American history.”
Judge Doughty, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump in 2017, said the White House and administration officials used private communications and public statements to pressure the tech giants to remove content related to the pandemic and the Covid vaccines.
The judge’s preliminary order prevented several agencies — including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security — from urging the platforms to remove “free speech protections.” The order said the government agencies could still discuss content related to categories including criminal activity, threats to national security and foreign election interference.
Legal scholars said the broad nature of the injunction may make it difficult for the government to follow through. The Justice Department appealed the order the day after it was issued.
The case comes amid a bitter partisan battle over online speech. Republicans have for years accused Silicon Valley companies of disproportionately deleting posts from the accounts of conservative publishers and personalities. Democrats said the technology platforms are not removing enough content, allowing false, hateful and violent messages to spread widely.
Republican lawmakers in Texas and Florida passed laws in 2021 prohibiting social media from removing certain political content.
The tech industry challenged those laws on First Amendment grounds, saying companies have the right to moderate their platforms as they see fit. Many experts believe that those legal challenges will eventually reach the Supreme Court.