Court blocks curbs on US government contact with social media companies for now


By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) -A U.S. appeals court on Friday temporarily blocked a lower court order that had sharply limited certain Biden administration officials’ and agencies’ contacts with social media companies.

The ruling from the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals means that the administration is not bound, for now, by a July 6 order by U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty in Monroe, Louisiana. Doughty had found that officials’ efforts to limit the spread of posts they considered to be misinformation on social media violated the right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

The 5th Circuit on Friday ruled that the administration’s appeal of Doughty’s order will be heard as soon as possible by a three-judge panel. That panel, which has not yet been assigned, will decide whether to keep the order on hold or allow it to go into effect while it decides the case.

Doughty’s order itself was a temporary injunction, meant to remain in place while the judge considers the case more fully. It came in a lawsuit brought by Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri and by several individuals.

They alleged that U.S. government officials, under both Democratic President Joe Biden and his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, effectively coerced social media companies to censor posts over concerns they would fuel vaccine hesitancy during the COVID-19 pandemic or upend elections.

The social media companies mentioned in the lawsuit include Facebook and Instagram parent Meta Platforms Inc, Twitter and Alphabet’s YouTube.

Doughty’s order barred government agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the FBI from talking to social media companies for “the purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech” under the First Amendment, with narrow exceptions.

U.S. officials have said they were aiming to tamp down on misinformation about COVID vaccines to curb preventable deaths. They have also said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit no longer face any harm because those efforts ended more than a year ago.

The Biden administration in seeking an emergency stay said Doughty’s order “raises grave separation-of-powers concerns” by putting the judicial branch of government in the “untenable position of superintending the executive branch’s communications.”

Legal experts have said Doughty’s order will likely face tough scrutiny on appeal, thanks to its breadth and the lack of clear precedents supporting it.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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