The recent controversial decision by the Biden administration to urge social media giants to take down what it deems “misleading” content, especially concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, has hit a roadblock. The U.S. Supreme Court intervened, casting doubt on whether the White House overstepped its constitutional boundaries.
A Battle of Free Speech vs. Coercion
When the Biden administration moved to push social media platforms like Meta Platforms’ Facebook, Alphabet’s YouTube, and X Corp (previously known as Twitter) to censor posts, they likely hadn’t anticipated the uproar that would follow.
Their move was met with opposition, predominantly from conservative quarters, culminating in a lawsuit spearheaded by the Republican attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, backed by a group of concerned social media users. These individuals and officials bemoaned what they saw as an infringement on First Amendment rights – a cornerstone of American democracy.
At the heart of the matter lies the distinction between “persuasion” and “coercion.” The Justice Department ardently argued that Biden’s team merely attempted to leverage their influence – a move any preceding administration would have deemed necessary for the public good.
But does suggesting or even insisting that certain content be removed cross that delicate line into coercion? This has become the quintessential question.
The Path to the Supreme Court’s Intervention
The initial verdict on this matter came from Louisiana-based U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty in July. In a contentious decision, he claimed that Biden’s efforts amounted to more than mere suggestion.
According to him, there was a palpable coercion at play, with notable platforms being pressured into suppressing posts about both COVID-19 and allegations of fraud in the 2020 election, which saw Biden rise to the presidency.
The subsequent appeal to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals only solidified this perspective. Their panel, predominantly comprising Republican appointees, echoed Doughty’s sentiments.
However, the 5th Circuit did not wholly side with Doughty. While they upheld the primary essence of his judgment, they overruled a significant portion of the injunction he had issued, which previously limited the administration’s engagement with these platforms.
What remained was a distilled directive, a narrower injunction, asserting that key entities, including the White House, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the FBI, could not overreach in their engagements with these platforms.
As the deadline approached, the Biden administration, somewhat expectedly, sought intervention from the highest legal authority in the land – the Supreme Court.
Their primary argument revolved around the validity of the lawsuit, questioning whether the plaintiffs, in this case, had any legal standing to sue.
The administration also presented the argument that the 5th Circuit’s decision was fundamentally flawed, drawing on “ill-defined” interpretations of coercion.
But the Supreme Court, acting through Conservative Justice Samuel Alito, took a tentative stance. Alito’s decision effectively pressed pause on the lower court’s ruling but left the door open for further developments as he froze the decision only until September 22.
In the midst of this legal tug-of-war, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey remained unyielding, hinting at future confrontations by vowing to hold any perpetrators of censorship accountable.