A federal judge has blocked key agencies within President Joe Biden’s administration from communicating with social media companies about certain online speech in an extraordinary ruling as part of an ongoing case that could have profound impacts on the First Amendment.
The preliminary injunction granted by Donald Trump-appointed US District Judge Terry A Doughty in Louisiana on 4 July prohibits the FBI and the US Department of Health and Human Services, among others, from speaking with platforms for “the purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech.”
The ruling – which could obstruct the administration’s attempts to combat false and potentially dangerous claims about vaccines and elections – is a victory for Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri who have alleged that the federal government was overreaching in its attempts to combat Covid-19 disinformation and baseless election fraud narratives.
Judge Doughty, who has yet to issue a final ruling, stated in his injunction that the Republican plaintiffs “have produced evidence of a massive effort by Defendants, from the White House to federal agencies, to suppress speech based on its content.”
He did make some exceptions that would allow the government to warn platforms about national security threats, criminal activity or voter suppression.
In his 155-page ruling, the judge compared the administartion’s efforts to halt the spread of false claims surrounding Covid-19 during a crisis that has killed more than one million Americans to an “Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth.’”
His ruling, released on a federal holiday, argued that “suppressed” viewpoints – including opposition to vaccines and wearing masks as well as bogus claims about the outcome of the 2020 election that Mr Trump lost – is “quiet telling” and a “targeted suppression of conservative ideas” that is a “perfect example” of discrimination of political speech.
“American citizens have the right to engage in free debate about the significant issues affecting the country … the evidence produced thus far depicts an almost dystopian scenario,” he wrote.
The legal challenge follows ongoing allegations from right-wing officials and Republican lawmakers that the federal government – specifically, Democratic officials – have conspired with “Big Tech” to silence conservative voices, a long-running conspiracy theory that proponents will argue is substantiated by the latest decision.
GOP attorneys general in the case have accused government agencies of a “systemic and systematic campaign” to control speech on social media platforms that accelerated during the Trump administration and experienced a “quantum leap” under President Biden.
Attorneys for the Biden administration have disputed such claims and warned that an injunction could undermine national security efforts, pointing to the programs developed among government agencies to combat disinformation in the aftermath of the 2016 election.
The US Department of Justice has defended its interactions with social media companies as the government’s attempt to encourage them to police their platforms to prevent the spread of harfmul false infofmation, and that the nature of those interactions also constitutes First Amendment-protected speech.
Government officials have categorically denied engaging in threatening actions or attempts to force platforms to kick people off of them.
A statement from a White House official to The Independent said that the US Department of Justice is reviewing the court’s injunction and will evaluate its options in this case.
“This Administration has promoted responsible actions to protect public health, safety, and security when confronted by challenges like a deadly pandemic and foreign attacks on our elections,” the statement added. “Our consistent view remains that social media platforms have a critical responsibility to take account of the effects their platforms are having on the American people, but make independent choices about the information they present.”
Missouri’s Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who originally filed the lawsuit with Louisiana’s Attorney General Jeff Landry, called the ruling a “big win for the First Amendment on this Independence Day.”
Though the case originated with those Republican officials, several additional plaintiffs added their name to the case, arguing that they also were unfairly targeted after spreading disinformation online.
Other figures who have entered the fray include vaccine conspiracy theorist and presidential hopeful Robert F Kennedy Jr and Jim Hoft, the founder of the far-right conspiracy theory-fuelled website The Gateway Pundit and a defendant in a defamation lawsuit filed by election workers who faced death threats over false reporting about them in the 2020 presidential election.
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