The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit on Friday ruled that the Biden White House, top government health officials and the FBI likely violated the First Amendment by improperly influencing tech companies’ decisions to remove or suppress posts on the coronavirus and elections.
The decision was likely to be seen as victory for conservatives who’ve long argued that social media platforms’ content moderation efforts restrict their free speech rights. But some advocates also said the ruling was an improvement over a temporary injunction U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty issued July 4.
David Greene, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the new injunction was “a thousand times better” than what Doughty, an appointee of former president Trump, had ordered originally.
Doughty’s decision had affected a wide range of government departments and agencies, and imposed 10 specific prohibitions on government officials. The appeals court threw out nine of those and modified the 10th to limit it to efforts to “coerce or significantly encourage social-media companies to remove, delete, suppress, or reduce, including through altering their algorithms, posted social-media content containing protected free speech.”
The 5th Circuit panel also limited the government institutions affected by its ruling to the White House, the surgeon general’s office, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI. It removed restrictions Doughty had imposed on the departments of State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services and on agencies including the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. The 5th Circuit found that those agencies had not coerced the social media companies to moderate their sites.
The judges wrote that the White House likely “coerced the platforms to make their moderation decisions by way of intimidating messages and threats of adverse consequences.” They also found the White House “significantly encouraged the platforms’ decisions by commandeering their decision-making processes, both in violation of the First Amendment.”
A White House spokesperson said in a statement that the Justice Department was “reviewing” the decision and evaluating its options.
“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 White House official 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.”
The decision is likely to have a wide-ranging impact on how the federal government communicates with the public and the social media companies about key public health issues and the 2024 elections.
The case is the most successful salvo to date in a growing conservative legal and political effort to limit coordination between the federal government and tech platforms. This case and recent probes in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives have accused government officials of actively colluding with platforms to influence public discourse, in an evolution of long-running allegations that liberal employees inside tech companies favor Democrats when making decisions about what posts are removed or limited online.
The appeals court judges found that pressure from the White House and the CDC affected how social media platforms handled posts about covid-19 in 2021, as the Biden administration sought to encourage the public to obtain vaccinations.
The judges detail multiple emails and statements from White House officials that they say show escalating threats and pressure on the social media companies to address covid misinformation. The judges say that the officials “were not shy in their requests,” calling for posts to be removed “ASAP” and appearing “persistent and angry.” The judges detailed a particularly contentious period in July of 2021, which reached a boiling point when President Biden accused Facebook of “killing people.”
“We find, like the district court, that the officials’ communications — reading them in ‘context, not in isolation’ — were on-the-whole intimidating,” the judges wrote.
The judges also zeroed in on the FBI’s communications with tech platforms in the run-up to the 2020 elections, which included regular meetings with the tech companies. The judges wrote that the FBI’s activities were “not limited to purely foreign threats,” citing instances where the law enforcement agency “targeted” posts that originated inside the United States, including some that stated incorrect poll hours or mail-in voting procedures.
The judges said in their rulings that the platforms changed their policies based on the FBI briefings, citing updates to their terms of service about handling of hacked materials, following warnings of state-sponsored “hack and dump” operations.
The judges, however, found some of the government communications enjoined by the district court to be permissible, including those of former chief medical adviser to the president, Anthony S. Fauci. They said the record did not show that Fauci communicated directly with the platforms and said his efforts to promote the government’s scientific and policy views did not “run afoul of the First Amendment.”
They also found that the lower court erred in barring CISA’s interactions with the companies, finding that its efforts to flag content to the platforms did not amount to “attempts to coerce” the companies’ moderation decisions.
Chris Krebs, the CISA chief fired by Trump over his endorsement of the 2020 election result, said he found the ruling “reassuring.”
“This ruling eviscerated the district court decision,” Krebs said.
The judges also said there was no evidence that the State Department’s communications with the platforms “went beyond educating the platforms on ‘tools and techniques’ used by foreign actors.”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and it was not immediately clear if it would appeal the ruling. The order will take effect in 10 days, unless the government seeks intervention from the Supreme Court.
The Justice Department had argued that Doughty’s ruling was overly broad and could “chill” a wide range of lawful communications between the government and social media companies, especially in the face of public emergencies.
The FBI, Google and Meta declined to comment. X and the surgeon general’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Any appeal of the order would bring the debate over online speech before the Supreme Court, which is already expected to take up conflicting appeals court rulings over state social media laws this year.
Evelyn Douek, assistant professor at Stanford Law, said the case was a “strong candidate for the Supreme Court to weigh in, given the law isn’t clear, the issues are so important, and courts have come to different conclusions.”
Douek said the 5th Circuit “paints with a slightly less broad and more careful brush than the district court did.” But she warned the decision “lumps together lots of different kinds of government speech in a way that papers over a lot of nuance.”
The 5th Circuit ruling reversed Doughty’s order specifically enjoining the actions of leaders at DHS, HHS and other agencies, saying many of those individuals “were permissibly exercising government speech.”
“That distinction is important because the state-action doctrine is vitally important to our Nation’s operation — by distinguishing between the state and the People, it promotes ‘a robust sphere of individual liberty,’” the 5th Circuit judges wrote.
Yet Friday’s order still applies to a wide range of individuals working across the government, specifically naming 14 White House officials, including five who are no longer in office. The order specifically names Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy and another member of his office, three CDC staffers and two FBI officials, including the head of the foreign influence task force and the lead agent of its cyber investigative task force in San Francisco.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre is among the White House officials named.
Stanford Law School professor Daphne Keller said the 5th Circuit’s ruling appeared to allow “a lot of normal communications as long as they are not threatening or taking over control of platforms’ content decisions.”
“But it also says they can’t ‘significantly encourage’ platforms to remove lawful content, so the real question is what that means,” she said.
Friday’s decision came in response to a lawsuit brought by Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri who allege that government officials violated the First Amendment in their efforts to encourage social media companies to address posts that they worried could contribute to vaccine hesitancy during the pandemic or upend elections.
Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey celebrated the decision as a victory in a statement.
“The first brick was laid in the wall of separation between tech and state on July 4,” he said. “Today’s ruling is yet another brick.”
Menn reported from San Francisco.