A federal appeals court on Friday ordered the White House, the FBI and top health officials to not “coerce or significantly encourage” social media companies to remove content that the Biden administration considers to be misinformation.
But the three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed much of an injunction that restricted Biden administration contact with social media companies issued by a Louisiana judge.
The lower-court judge found that U.S. officials illegally coerced Meta Platforms’ Facebook and Alphabet’s YouTube into censoring posts related to Covid and the 2020 election.
The 5th Circuit agreed with the Republican state attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, who had alleged that numerous federal officials coerced social-media platforms into censoring content in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s free speech protections.
But the court, in an unsigned opinion by three judges appointed by Republican presidents, vacated much of the lower court’s injunction, with the exception of a provision concerning alleged coercion, which it narrowed.
The 5th Circuit said the narrower injunction applied to the White House, the surgeon general, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the FBI, but would no longer apply to other federal officials covered by the lower court order. The agencies are barred from coercing, threatening or pressuring social media companies to remove content.
“Social-media platforms’ content-moderation decisions must be theirs and theirs alone,” the court wrote.
The ruling was hailed on X, formerly known as Twitter, by Missouri’s Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who said it would stop federal officials “from violating the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans.”
The 5th Circuit put the injunction on hold for 10 days to allow Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. The U.S. Department of Justice, which is defending the administration, declined to comment.
The attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri, along with several individuals who say they were censored on social media, had sued Biden administration agencies and officials last year.
They said that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter engaged in censorship as a result of repeated urging by government officials and threats of heightened regulatory enforcement.
The lawsuit said the censored views included content questioning anti-COVID-19 measures such as masks and vaccine mandates and doubting the validity of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in which Biden defeated Republican incumbent Donald Trump.
U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, whose courthouse in Monroe, Louisiana, has become a favored venue for Republican challenges to Biden’s policies, sided with the states, finding that the federal government’s “Orwellian” efforts violated the First Amendment.
The Biden administration has argued that it asked social media companies to take down posts it considered to be harmful misinformation, but never forced them to do so.