US seeking to block curbs on government contact with social media firms


By Kanishka Singh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Justice Department on Monday sought to block a judge’s order that barred some federal agencies and officials from communicating with social media firms about moderating content on their platforms in a decision stemming from a Republican-backed lawsuit against President Joe Biden’s administration.

The department asked the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to issue a stay of the order last week by Louisiana-based U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty.

Federal agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services and the FBI cannot talk 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,” Doughty ruled.

The judge’s preliminary injunction marked a win for the Republican attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri, who had accused the administration in a lawsuit of unlawfully using the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of misinformation to curb views that disagreed with the government. Doughty was appointed by Republican former President Donald Trump.

The order referred to speech protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which bars the government from “abridging the freedom of speech.”

The Justice Department in a filing sought a stay pending its appeal of the judge’s preliminary injunction.

Doughty’s order specifically mentioned certain officials including Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Jen Easterly, who heads the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

U.S. officials have said that in contacting social media companies they were aiming to tamp down misinformation about American elections and about COVID vaccines to curb preventable deaths.

“The injunction threatens to chill this wholly lawful conduct, and to place the Judiciary in the untenable position of superintending the Executive Branch’s communications. It raises grave separation-of-powers concerns,” the Justice Department filing said, referring to the Constitution’s division of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the U.S. government.

The judge’s order made some exceptions for communications between government officials and the companies, including to warn about risks to national security and about criminal activity.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; editing by Will Dunham and Mike Scarcella)

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