A federal judge on July 4 issued an injunction prohibiting numerous government agencies and White House employees from attempting to convince social-media platforms to suppress posts that are protected by the First Amendment.
The sweeping order, handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Terry Doughty, a Trump appointee, bans government officials from “taking any action such as urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner social-media companies to remove, delete, suppress, or reduce posted content protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
The First Amendment generally protects all lawful speech, including speech that contains incorrect information.
Doughty's injunction doesn't prevent officials from informing social-media companies about posts involving crimes, national security threats, efforts to unlawfully interfere with elections, and certain other activity.
The ruling applies to federal agencies including the Department Health and Human Services, The National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Census Bureau, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Department of Justice.
The order also applies to individuals in the Executive Office of the President, including Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
The injunction comes in a lawsuit brought by attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri, who alleged that White House officials violated the First Amendment by attempting to suppress comment on social media platforms about a range of topics, including the origins of COVID-19, and the efficacy of vaccines.
“The plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits in establishing that the government has used its power to silence the opposition,” Doughty wrote in a 155-page opinion accompanying the injunction. The injunction is “preliminary,” but could become permanent after more evidence is developed.
He added that posts opposing COVID-19 vaccines, masking requirements, lockdowns and the validity of the 2020 election were among the content that was suppressed on social media.
“Although this case is still relatively young ... the evidence produced thus far depicts an almost dystopian scenario,” he wrote. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, a period perhaps best characterized by widespread doubt and uncertainty, the United States Government seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian 'Ministry of Truth.'”
Among other incidents cited in the opinion, Doughty noted a July 15, 2021 press conference at which former Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued recommendations aimed at curbing false information about COVID-19. At that event, Murthy said the government was asking tech companies to monitor and take action “against misinformation super-spreaders,” while Psaki said the government was “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.”
Doughty also rejected the government's argument that the social platforms would have suppressed comments regardless of any alleged activity by officials.
“A drastic increase in censorship, deboosting, shadow-banning, and account suspensions directly coincided with defendants’ public calls for censorship and private demands for censorship,” he wrote.