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Supreme Court eyes government links with social media sites

The United States Supreme Court building is visible in Washington, U.S., February 29, 2024

WASHINGTON, March 18 (mod1s) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday marches back into the battle over social media content moderation in a challenge on free speech grounds to how President Joe Biden's administration encouraged platforms to remove posts that federal officials deemed misinformation, including about elections and COVID-19. 

The justices are due to hear arguments in the administration's appeal of a lower court's preliminary injunction regulating how White House and some other government officials engage with social media sites.

The Republican-led states of Missouri and Louisiana, together with five individual social media users, sued the government. They asserted that the government's activities violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment free expression rights of users whose postings were taken from sites such as Facebook (META.O), opens new tab, YouTube (GOOGL.O), opens new tab, and Twitter, now named X. 

The lawsuit addresses whether the administration crossed the line from ordinary discussion and persuasion to strong arming or coercing platforms - also termed "jawboning" - to illegally restrict disfavored speech, as lower courts concluded.

Biden's administration has argued that officials sought to mitigate the hazards of online misinformation, including false information about vaccines during the pandemic that they said was causing preventable deaths, by alerting social media companies to content that violated the platforms' own policies. 

The justices in February heard arguments in another social media lawsuit on whether to maintain laws enacted in Texas and Florida that would regulate the content moderation techniques of platforms.

The Republican sponsors of such legislation have raised worry about what they depict as prejudice against conservative voices on these platforms. Many scholars, as well as liberals and Democrats, have warned of the hazards of social media platforms spreading misinformation and disinformation concerning public health, vaccinations and electoral fraud. 

In the lawsuit being discussed on Monday, the plaintiffs have alleged that platforms restricted conservative-leaning speech, which they ascribe to government pressure, a kind of state action forbidden by the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court in October placed the lower court's order on hold awaiting the consideration of the case by the justices. 

The Justice Department argued that government leaders, including presidents, historically have utilized the bully pulpit to express opinions and to enlighten on topics of public interest. 

It further ruled that private companies that make judgments on such information are not state actors as long as they are not threatened with undesirable repercussions. The agency also warned that an order restricting the administration's activities might inhibit important government communications, including to preserve national security. 

The plaintiffs sued authorities and agencies throughout the federal government, including at the White House, FBI, surgeon general's office, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. 

Louisiana-based U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty imposed a preliminary injunction in July 2023. Doughty concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on their claim that the government helped suppress "disfavored conservative speech" on mask-wearing, lockdowns and vaccines intended as public health measures during the pandemic, or that questioned the validity of the 2020 election in which Biden, a Democrat, defeated Donald Trump, a Republican. 

The order prevented an assortment of government officials from contacting with platforms for content moderation, such as requesting the deletion of specific postings. 

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later narrowed that ruling. 

The Supreme Court's verdict is likely by the end of June.


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