Supreme Court lifts restrictions on Biden administration communications with social media

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CNN
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The Supreme Court on Friday lifted restrictions on the Biden administration’s communications with social media companies while a lawsuit targeting the government’s efforts to combat online misinformation plays out.

The court’s move pauses rulings from a federal trial court and a conservative appeals court that severely limited the ability of the White House, the surgeon general, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FBI and a top US cybersecurity agency to communicate with social media companies about content related to Covid-19 and elections the government views as misinformation.

A sweeping preliminarily injunction issued this summer by a federal judge in Louisiana effectively blocked a slew of federal agencies and administration officials from communicating with social media companies about taking down “content containing protected free speech” posted on the platforms.

In agreeing to pause the rulings on Friday, the high court also said it would take up the case, though it didn’t say when it would hear oral arguments in the dispute.

Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas said they disagreed with the court’s decision to pause the lower court rulings.

“The upshot is that the Biden administration gets to keep on doing whatever it’s doing with regard to communicating with social media companies until and unless the Supreme Court rules against it on the merits,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

In the five-page dissent, the conservatives criticized the court’s decision to take up the case while it was still in an early phase and called the court’s decision to pause the rulings “highly disturbing.”

“At this time in the history of our country, what the Court has done, I fear, will be seen by some as giving the Government a green light to use heavy-handed tactics to skew the presentation of views on the medium that increasingly dominates the dissemination of news,” Alito wrote in the dissent. “That is most unfortunate.”

Missouri and Louisiana’s attorneys general, as well as several individual plaintiffs, filed the lawsuit last year, alleging that the government’s efforts to combat online misinformation about Covid-19 and US elections amounted to a form of unconstitutional censorship.

A sweeping preliminarily injunction issued this summer by a federal judge in Louisiana effectively blocked a slew of federal agencies and administration officials from communicating with social media companies about taking down “content containing protected free speech” posted on the platforms.

A three-judge panel at the 5th US Court of Appeals scaled back the injunction in September, narrowing its scope to a few agencies that it said “likely violated the First Amendment” when they leaned on platforms to moderate some content.

The court said the new injunction covered only the White House, the surgeon general, the CDC and the FBI.

After the Biden administration turned to the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs asked 5th Circuit panel to expand the scope of the injunction. The court partially granted the request in early October, adding the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency as an enjoined entity.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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