Supreme Court Strikes Down Republican Challenge to Biden Administration’s Efforts Urging Social Media Platforms to Remove Disinformation

The Supreme Court ruled against a group of conservatives who sued the Biden administration — alleging the White House violated the First Amendment by pressuring Facebook and other tech platforms to remove “disinformation” — saying they failed to show they were harmed by the administration’s efforts.

In the 6-3 ruling issued Wednesday, the Supreme Court said the individual and state plaintiffs in the case did not have standing to seek a preliminary injunction against federal executive-branch officials and agencies over their official communications with social-media companies about the spread of misinformation online.

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“The plaintiffs fail, by and large, to link their past social-media restrictions and the defendants’ communications with the platforms,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote in the opinion for the majority.

Barrett’s opinion continued, “The plaintiffs, without any concrete link between their injuries and the defendants’ conduct, ask us to conduct a review of the yearslong communications between dozens of federal officials, across different agencies, with different social-media platforms, about different topics. This court’s standing doctrine prevents us from exercising such general legal oversight of the other branches of government.”

In 2022, Republican attorneys general in Missouri and Louisiana together with five social media users sued over the White House’s outreach to social media platforms requesting the removal of certain disinformation. They alleged that Biden administration officials, working through backchannels, “coerced” tech platforms to remove content reflecting viewpoints the administration disagreed with.

The Supreme Court ruling reverses lower court decisions that blocked federal officials and agencies from working with tech companies to remove disinformation. Last year, Louisiana federal district court Judge Terry A. Doughty issued an initial ruling barring administration officials from communicating with social-media platforms. A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals scaled back the injunction last fall, narrowing its scope to agencies and individuals it said had likely violated the First Amendment, including the White House, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the CDC, the FBI, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

The Supreme Court’s majority opinion said the state plaintiffs, Louisiana and Missouri, “refer only to action taken by Facebook against a Louisiana state representative’s post about children and the COVID–19 vaccine. But they never say when Facebook took action against the official’s post — a critical fact in establishing a causal link. Nor have the three plaintiff doctors established a likelihood that their past restrictions are traceable to either the White House officials or the CDC. They highlight restrictions imposed by Twitter and LinkedIn, but point only to Facebook’s communications with White House officials.”

Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

“For months, high-ranking government officials placed unrelenting pressure on Facebook to suppress Americans’ free speech. Because the court unjustifiably refuses to address this serious threat to the First Amendment, I respectfully dissent,” Alito wrote in the dissenting opinion. “Government censorship of private speech is antithetical to our democratic form of government, and therefore today’s decision is highly disturbing.”

The court’s decision in the case, Murthy v. Missouri, and the accompanying dissent are at this link.

The Biden administration’s efforts to fight misinformation on social platforms don’t amount to censorship — but are rather efforts to make platforms aware of the potential public harms that could result from the unvetted spread of falsehoods via their networks, according to Nora Benavidez, senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights at advocacy group Free Press.

“In its ruling in Murthy v. Missouri, the Supreme Court didn’t reach the question of whether the First Amendment restricts government engagement with private speech” but the court’s majority “did indicate that platforms should be free to regularly communicate with outside experts and officials on content-moderation issues,” Benavidez said. She added, “There are essential moments when our government should be allowed, even encouraged, to contact private companies like social-media platforms and provide factual information to them,” especially pertaining to issues of foreign interference, election integrity, national security and encouragement of violence.

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