In a recent decision, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals expressed concerns that Biden administration officials might have overstepped their constitutional bounds. The court indicated that these officials possibly infringed on the First Amendment by urging social media platforms to regulate or remove content they found objectionable.
However, the court did narrow down an injunction from a Louisiana judge that had previously limited the Biden administration’s interactions with these tech companies.
The panel, consisting of three judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court based in New Orleans, highlighted in their 74-page decision that entities such as the White House, Surgeon General, CDC, and the FBI seemed to have exerted undue influence on social media platforms, potentially violating free speech rights. The judges noted, “While officials have a legitimate interest in liaising with social media entities on issues like misinformation and election interference, they cannot suppress specific viewpoints.”
The court’s findings revealed that these officials had used strong language against the platforms, accusing them of “harming the public” and even “causing deaths.” Such statements were followed by veiled threats of introducing “fundamental reforms” and stricter regulatory actions.
Furthermore, the court observed that these officials didn’t just stop at making statements. They actively influenced the platforms’ content moderation decisions, especially regarding their policies.
The ruling also shed light on the FBI’s involvement, highlighting that the agency not only shared strategic information with these platforms but also actively monitored their content moderation practices. More concerning was the revelation that the FBI had pressed these platforms to remove specific content.
The court’s stance was clear: the government cannot dictate a platform’s content decisions, nor can it threaten them with legal or regulatory repercussions for non-compliance. The court firmly stated, “The decision to moderate content on social media platforms must solely be the platform’s prerogative.”
This case was initiated by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri, along with several social media users. They alleged that platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter had censored content due to government officials’ persistent interventions and threats of increased regulatory scrutiny. The suppressed content reportedly included discussions questioning COVID-19 measures and claims of election fraud.
However, the court did make some modifications to the initial ruling by U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, emphasizing that mere encouragement to remove content doesn’t always breach the constitution.
The decision also excluded certain agencies from its purview, including the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, and the State Department.
Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey commented on the lawsuit, describing it as an effort “to stop the most significant First Amendment violation in our nation’s history.” He added, “Missouri remains at the forefront of defending our most fundamental freedoms.”