A U.S. appeals court on Friday ruled several government entities including the White House, the FBI, the Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention likely violated the First Amendment by pressuring social media companies to moderate their content on misinformation surrounding vaccines, The Hill reported.
In a decision issued Friday evening, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said government actors “likely coerced or encouraged” social media companies to moderate their content, affirming a decision by a lower court with respect to the White House, the FBI, the CDC and the Surgeon General. According to The Hill, the three judges issuing the decision were all appointed by Republicans.
The White House in a statement said the Department of Justice was reviewing the decision and its options going forward.
“This Administration has promoted responsible actions to protect public health, safety, and security when confronted by challenges like a deadly pandemic and foreign attacks on our elections,” the statement said. “Our consistent view remains that social media platforms have a critical responsibility to take account of the effects their platforms are having on the American people, but make independent choices about the information they present.”
Here are some pieces of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit:
For the last few years – at least since the 2020 presidential transition – a group of federal officials has been in regular contact with nearly every major American social-media company about the spread of “misinformation” on their platforms. In their concern, those officials – hailing from the White House, the CDC, the FBI, and a few other agencies – urged the platforms to remove disfavored content and accounts from their sites.
And, the platforms, seemingly complied. They gave the officials access to an expedited reporting system, downgraded or removed flagged posts, and deplatformed users. The platforms also changed their internal policies to capture more flagged content and sent steady reports on their moderation activities to the officials. That went on through the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2022 congressional election, and continues to this day.
Enter this lawsuit. The Plaintiffs – three doctors, a news website, a healthcare activist and two states – had posts and stories removed or downgraded by the platforms. Their content touched on a host of divisive topics like the COVID-19 lab-leak theory, pandemic lockdowns, vaccine side-effects, election fraud, and the Hunter Biden laptop story. The Plaintiffs maintain that although the platforms stifled their speech, the government officials were the ones pulling the strings – they “coerced, threatened and pressured [the] social-media platforms to censor [them]” through private communications and legal threats.
So, they sued the officials for First Amendment violations and asked the district court to enjoin the officials’ conduct. In response, the officials argued that they only “sought to mitigate the hazards of online misinformation” by “calling attention to content” that violated the “platforms’ policies,” a form of permissible government speech.
USA Today reported that the decision from the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals partly upheld an order from a Louisiana federal judge that blocked many federal agencies from having contact with companies like Facebook, YouTube, and X, formerly Twitter, about content moderation.
But the 75-page opinion from three-judge panel also significantly narrowed the scope of the order that was a major victory for conservatives. USA Today also reported that the Biden administration has 10 days to seek a Supreme Court review of the ruling.
In my opinion, social media platforms that allow people to post misinformation typically have options for users who don’t want to see that sort of content. For example, X gives users the ability to mute and/or block content they are not interested in.