Supreme Court annuls court order that limited contacts of the Biden administration with social networks

The Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed claims that the Biden administration forced social media platforms to censor users by removing COVID-19 and election-related content.

Complaints alleging that high-ranking government officials were censoring conservatives had previously convinced a lower court to order an injunction limiting the Biden administration’s contacts with the platforms. But now that court order has been overturned, reopening the lines of communication just before the 2024 election, when officials will again closely monitor the spread of online misinformation aimed at voters.

In a 6-3 vote, the majority ruled that none of the plaintiffs (including five social media users and Republican attorneys general from Louisiana and Missouri) had standing. They had alleged that the government had “pressured the platforms to censor their speech in violation of the First Amendment,” demanding an injunction to stop any future censorship.

The plaintiffs might have succeeded if they had instead sought damages for past harm. But in her opinion, Judge Amy Coney Barrett wrote that, in part because the Biden administration apparently stopped influencing the platforms’ content policies in 2022, none of the plaintiffs could show evidence of a “substantial risk that they will, in the near future, suffer harm attributable to” any government official. They therefore did not appear to face “a real and immediate threat of repeated harm,” Barrett wrote.

“Without evidence of an ongoing pressure campaign, it is entirely speculative that future platform moderation decisions will be attributable, even in part,” to government officials, Barrett wrote, finding that a court order would do little to prevent a future censorship.

Instead, the plaintiffs’ claims “depend on the platforms‘actions,’ Barrett emphasized, “however, plaintiffs are not seeking to prevent platforms from restricting posts or accounts.”

“It is a fundamental principle that a federal court cannot remedy ‘harm resulting from the independent action of a third party not brought before the court,'” Barrett wrote.

Barrett repeatedly pointed to the “weak” arguments raised by the plaintiffs, none of which could directly link the removal of specific content to the Biden administration’s pressure campaign urging platforms to remove vaccine or election misinformation.

According to Barrett, the lower court that initially granted the injunction “overlooked the complexities of the evidence,” including the fact that “the platforms began suppressing plaintiffs’ COVID-19 content” before the campaign began. of government pressure. That’s a problem, Barrett said, because suing “requires a threshold showing that a particular defendant pressured a particular platform to censor a particular topic before that platform suppressed a particular plaintiff’s speech on that topic.” issue”.

“While the record reflects that the Government defendants played a role in at least some of the platforms’ moderation decisions, the evidence indicates that the platforms had independent incentives to moderate content and often exercised their own discretion,” Barrett wrote.

Barrett was also unconvinced by arguments that plaintiffs risk having platforms remove future content based on stricter moderation policies that were previously coerced by officials.

“Without evidence of continued pressure from defendants, platforms remain free to enforce or not enforce their policies, even those tainted by initial government coercion,” Barrett wrote.

Judge: SCOTUS “avoids its duty” to defend freedom of expression

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined Samuel Alito in dissenting, arguing that “this is one of the most important free speech cases to come before this Court in years” and that the Supreme Court had an “obligation” to “address the issue of freedom of expression that the case presents.”

“The Court, however, shirks that duty and thus allows the successful coercion campaign in this case to become an attractive model for future officials who want to control what people say, hear and think,” Alito wrote.

Alito argued that the evidence showed that while “downright dangerous speech” was suppressed, “valuable speech” was also suppressed. He agreed with the lower court that “high-ranking federal officials had conducted a widespread and far-reaching censorship campaign against Americans who expressed certain unfavorable opinions about COVID-19 on social media.”

“For months, high-ranking government officials put relentless pressure on Facebook to suppress Americans’ free speech,” Alito wrote. “As the Court unjustifiably refuses to address this serious threat to the First Amendment, I respectfully dissent.”

At least one plaintiff who opposed mask-wearing and vaccines, Jill Hines, was “unquestionably hurt,” Alito wrote, arguing that evidence showed she was censored more frequently after officials pressured Facebook to change its policies. policies.

“Senior federal officials continually and persistently pressured Facebook to crack down on what they considered unhelpful social media posts, including not only posts they believed were false or misleading, but also stories they did not claim were literally false but that they nevertheless wanted to hide,” Alito wrote.

While Barrett and the majority found that the platforms were more likely responsible for the damages, Alito disagreed, writing that with the threat of antitrust investigations or amendments to Section 230, Facebook acted as “a subordinate entity determined to remain in the favor of a powerful taskmaster.” “

Alito wrote that the majority was “applying a new and strengthened standard” by requiring plaintiffs to “separate government-caused censorship from censorship that Facebook could have carried out anyway.” In her opinion, it was enough for Hines to show that “a predictable effect of the officials’ action was that Facebook would modify its censorship policies in a way that would affect her.”

“When the White House pressured Facebook to amend some of the speech-related policies that Hines participated in, those amendments necessarily impacted some of Facebook’s censorship decisions,” Alito wrote. “Nothing more is needed. What the Court seems to want is a series of ironclad ties.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Alito said.

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