Judge’s order limits government contact with social media operators, raises disinformation questions

An order by a federal judge in Louisiana has ignited a high-stakes legal battle over how the government is allowed to interact with social media platforms, raising broad questions about whether — and how — officials can fight what they deem misinformation on health or other matters.

U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, a conservative nominated to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump, chose Independence Day to issue an injunction blocking multiple government agencies and administration officials. In his words, they are forbidden to meet with or contact social media companies for the purpose of “encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech.”

The order also prohibits the agencies and officials from pressuring social media companies “in any manner” to try to suppress posts, raising questions about what officials could even say in public forums.

Doughty’s order blocks the administration from taking such actions pending further arguments in his court in a lawsuit filed by Republican attorneys general in Missouri and Louisiana.

The Justice Department filed a notice of appeal and said it would also seek to try to stay the court’s order.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “We certainly disagree with this decision.” She declined to comment further.

An administration official said there was some concern about the impact the decision would have on efforts to counter domestic extremism — deemed by the intelligence community to be a top threat to the nation — but that it would depend on how long the injunction remains in place and what steps platforms take on their own. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The lawsuit alleges that government officials used the possibility of favorable or unfavorable regulatory action to coerce social media platforms to squelch what the administration considered misinformation on a variety of topics, including COVID-19 vaccines, President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, and election integrity.

The injunction — and Doughty’s accompanying reasons saying the administration “seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth’” — were hailed by conservatives as a victory for free speech and a blow to censorship.

Legal experts, however, expressed surprise at the breadth of the order, and questioned whether it puts too many limits on a presidential administration.

“When we were in the midst of the pandemic, but even now, the government has significantly important public health expertise,” James Speta, a law professor and expert on internet regulation at Northwestern University, said Wednesday. “The scope of the injunction limits the ability of the government to share public health expertise.”

The implications go beyond public health.

Disinformation researchers and social media watchdogs said the ruling could make social media companies less accountable to label and remove election falsehoods.

“As the U.S. gears up for the biggest election year the internet age has seen, we should be finding methods to better coordinate between governments and social media companies to increase the integrity of election news and information,” said Nora Benavidez, senior counsel of the digital rights advocacy group Free Press.

Social media companies routinely take down posts that violate their own standards, but they are rarely compelled to do so by the U.S. government.

Meta restricted access to 27 items that it thought violated laws in the U.S. during the first six months of 2020, most of them involving price-gouging allegations, according to its transparency report. But it reported no U.S.-specific content restrictions during 2021 or the first six months of 2022, the most recent data available.

By contrast, Meta restricted access to more than 17,000 social media posts in Mexico during the same period, most pertaining to unlawful advertising on risky cosmetic or dietary products, and more than 19,000 posts and comments in South Korea reported as violating national election rules.

Administration attorneys, in past court filings, have called the lawsuit an attempt to gag the free speech rights of administration officials themselves.

Justin Levitt, a law professor and constitutional law expert who is a former policy adviser to the Biden administration, said the order is unclear as to whether an official could even speak publicly to criticize misinformation on a social media platform.

Elizabeth Murrill, an assistant Louisiana Attorney General, said Wednesday that the order doesn’t infringe on such public criticism, as long as the official doesn’t threaten government action against the platform.

Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor and social media expert at Syracuse University, said Americans should resist the urge to dismiss the case as politically motivated and remain vigilant about the risks of federal encroachment on social media platforms.

“I’m more concerned that we’re lacking critique in the government’s intervention in these spaces,” Grygiel said. “We need, as a public, to be very critical of any attempts by a government, a federal actor, to censor speech through a corporate entity.”

Doughty has previously ruled against the Biden administration in other high-profile cases involving oil drilling and vaccination mandates.

In 2021 he issued a nationwide block of a Biden administration requirement that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19. A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals trimmed the area covered by the order to 14 states that were plaintiffs in the lawsuit.


Republished with permission from The Associated Press.

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