Court blocks 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 severely limited contact by some Biden administration officials and agencies with social media companies.

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

On Friday, the 5th Circuit ruled that the administration’s appeal against Doughty’s order would be heard as soon as possible by a three-judge panel. This panel, which has not yet been appointed, will decide whether to keep the order pending or allow it to go into effect while it decides the case.

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

They alleged that US government officials, under Democratic President Joe Biden and his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, had effectively coerced social media companies into censoring posts, fearing they would fuel hesitation over to vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic or upset elections.

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

Doughty’s order prohibited government agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the FBI from speaking to social media companies “for the purpose of urging, encouraging, coercing or in any way induce the removal, deletion, deletion or curtailment of content containing protected free speech” under the First Amendment, with certain exceptions.

US officials have said they aim to reduce misinformation about COVID vaccines to curb preventable deaths. They also said plaintiffs in the lawsuit no longer suffer any harm because those efforts ended more than a year ago.

The Biden administration, in seeking an emergency stay, said Doughty’s order “raises serious separation of powers concerns” by placing the judicial branch of government in the “untenable position of monitoring the communications of the executive branch”.

Legal experts have said Doughty’s order is likely to face scrutiny on appeal, thanks to its breadth and lack of clear precedent to back it up.

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

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