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Appeals Court rules that the White House violated the First Amendment on social media

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Appeals Court rules that the White House violated the First Amendment on social media

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the Biden administration most likely overstepped the First Amendment by urging major social media platforms to remove misleading or false content about the Covid-19 pandemic, confirming in part preliminary injunction from a lower court in a victory for conservatives.

The ruling, by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, was another twist in a First Amendment case that has challenged the government’s ability to combat false and misleading narratives about the pandemic. , voting rights and other topics spread by social networks.

The judges wrote that the White House and the Surgeon General’s Office had “forced the platforms to make their moderation decisions through intimidating messages and threats of adverse consequences” and “significantly encouraged the platforms’ decisions by controlling their decision-making processes.” decisions.” .”

The appeals court also found that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had used coercion in its interactions with the companies, which removed 50 percent of the online material that bureau agents flagged as problematic.

“Given the record before us, we cannot say that the FBI messages were clearly threatening in tone or form,” the judges wrote. However, “we found that the FBI’s requests came backed by clear authority over the platforms.”

The court limited the scope of a preliminary injunction, which prohibited officials from numerous agencies from having virtually any contact with social media companies. Instead, the court limited the impact to the White House, the Office of the Surgeon General, the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The White House defended its interactions with social media companies and said the Justice Department was reviewing the ruling and would consider options to respond.

“This administration has promoted responsible actions to protect public health and safety when faced with challenges such as a deadly pandemic and foreign attacks on our elections,” the White House said in a statement. “Our consistent view remains that social media platforms have a fundamental responsibility to take into account the effects their platforms are having on the American people, but they make independent decisions about the information they present.”

Jenin Younes, an attorney for the New Alliance for Civil Liberties, an organization representing individual plaintiffs in the case, called Friday’s decision “an important and unprecedented victory.”

“This could be the most important First Amendment case in the Internet age and is a crucial outcome for the flourishing of free speech in an era when social media has become the modern public square,” he said. .

The attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, both Republicans, argued in a lawsuit filed last year that government agencies and officials (including some working in President Donald J. Trump’s administration) had abused their authority by coercing companies like Facebook. , Twitter (now called X) and YouTube to silence critics.

Judge Terry A. Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana agreed and ordered a preliminary injunction against the government. In a ruling issued July 4, he said the allegations in the lawsuit possibly involved “the most massive attack on free speech in American history.”

On the question of First Amendment protections, the appeals court’s three-judge panel, which last month temporarily froze Judge Doughty’s injunction, largely agreed.

The debate over how far companies can go to limit online content (known as moderation) has become increasingly vehement and polarizing. On the one hand, government officials have argued that they have a duty to protect public health and national security from false or misleading information. However, Republicans and others have accused the social media giants of colluding with government officials in violation of First Amendment free speech protections.

They have focused their ire on the Biden administration even though previous administrations had regular contacts with social media companies and some of the cases cited in the lawsuit occurred during the Trump administration.

Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, recently noted that the Trump White House had asked the company in 2019 to remove a tweet in which model Chrissy Teigen called the president several profanities. (The company did not, after what Roth called Kafkaesque internal deliberations.)

Government officials have long argued that they do not have the authority to order the removal of posts or entire accounts from the platforms, which private companies control. However, they have worked with tech giants to take action against illegal or harmful material, especially in cases involving child sexual abuse, human trafficking, and other criminal activities.

That has also included regular meetings to share information about the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Many of the cases cited in the legal challenge involved the Covid pandemic, when government officials feared misinformation about vaccines and other treatments would hamper efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 1.1 million. of Americans.

Although Republicans have led the charge, the argument that the government has exceeded its constitutional authority to police online content has raised concerns across the political spectrum. He has gained support from others who complain about the role of social media giants in moderating content on their platforms, including hate speech and misinformation.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the contender for the Democratic presidential nomination and promoter of several conspiracy theories, filed a similar lawsuit, which was consolidated into the Missouri case. He argued that government officials had forced the platforms to delete accounts, including his.

“Never in the history of this country have federal officials so blatantly colluded with industry to silence voices that challenge government agendas,” Kennedy, who runs Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine organization, said in a statement released later. . of the appeal hearing in New Orleans.

Other groups sided with the government, arguing that the lower court’s injunction would interfere with the free speech of researchers or others who brought harmful material on their platforms to the attention of the government and companies.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group, argued in an amicus brief to the appeals court that the judge’s injunction was worded so broadly and vaguely that it would “chill the sharing of critical information.” “between researchers, companies and government officials. before the 2024 presidential elections.

“In the United States, malicious actors have repeatedly deployed election falsehoods to confuse and deter voters,” the group argued. “This threat persists as new presidential elections approach.”

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