Court to weigh curbs on Biden administration’s contacts with social media firms

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Thursday will weigh lifting a Louisiana judge’s order limiting the Biden administration’s ability to communicate with social media companies to urge them to moderate information it deems harmful or misleading.

A three-judge panel of the conservative-leaning 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans is set to hear arguments in the administration’s appeal of the judge’s ruling, which found that the government wrongly pushed social media firms to suppress disfavored political views.

U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty’s July 4 ruling came at the request of Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri who claimed that conservative speech had been censored on social media platforms, particularly about COVID-19 policies.

Doughty, an appointee of former Republican President Donald Trump, that officials under both Democratic President Joe Biden and Trump had effectively coerced social media companies to censor posts over concerns they would fuel vaccine hesitancy during the COVID-19 pandemic or upend elections.

He said those “Orwellian” efforts began in 2019 with officials asking social media companies such as Meta Platform’s Facebook, Alphabet Inc-owned YouTube and Twitter, now know as X Corp, to limit the spread of posts they considered to be misinformation.

Doughty said those actions led to the suppression of posts opposing vaccines, mask requirements and government-ordered lockdowns to combat COVID-19’s spread and opposition to the validity of the 2020 election, which Biden won over Trump.

The judge, whose courthouse in Monroe has become a favored venue for Republican challenges to Biden’s policies, said the “widespread censorship campaign” violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s free speech guarantees.

He barred government agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, from talking to social media companies to seek the removal or suppression of content containing protected free speech, with narrow exceptions.

The Biden administration quickly appealed, and the 5th Circuit temporarily put the judge’s ruling on hold while it heard the case.

The administration denies forcing social media companies to take down any posts. It said Doughty’s order hampers its ability to deal with misinformation in emergencies and violates the government’s own right to speak freely.

The panel that will hear the Biden administration’s appeal includes three judges who were all appointed by Republican presidents, U.S. Circuit Judges Edith Brown Clement, Jennifer Walker Elrod and Don Willett.

The case has drawn numerous friend-of-the-court briefs, which have broken down largely along partisan lines. Republican state attorneys general and members of Congress have weighed in to support the two states, while Democratic-led states are backing the administration.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Nate Raymond and Aurora Ellis)

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