A dozen Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee are asking an appellate court to restore an injunction that would prevent federal government officials from urging social-media platforms to suppress misinformation.
In papers filed Monday with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the lawmakers say evidence obtained by the committee “shows that the Biden administration has relentlessly pressured private entities -- sometimes in cooperation with other private entities -- to censor speech that the administration disliked.”
The injunction, issued by U.S. District court Judge Terry Doughty in Monroe, Louisiana, prohibits numerous federal agencies and personnel 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 First Amendment.
Doughty's order includes prohibitions on meeting with social media companies in order to convince them to suppress content protected by the First Amendment, flagging specific posts as problematic, and encouraging tech platforms to change their content-moderation guidelines.
On July 14, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit on July 14 temporarily lifted the injunction. That court is scheduled to hold a hearing in the matter on Thursday.
Doughty issued the injunction in response to a lawsuit by attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri, as well as several individuals who said their posts related to COVID-19 policies and vaccines were suppressed.
The complaint included a claim that the government violated the First Amendment by pressuring social platforms "to censor disfavored speakers and viewpoints by using threats of adverse government action."
Doughty wrote in a 155-page opinion issued July 4 that the government's effort to prevent the spread of some content “depicts an almost dystopian scenario.”
He said in his ruling 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.
The Biden administration, which is appealing the injunction, argued in papers filed last week that the order should be reversed for numerous reasons -- including that government officials don't violate the First Amendment by asking social media companies to take down posts, unless the government is also threatening companies with some sort of sanction for failing to remove the material.
The administration added that no one presented Doughty with evidence that government officials ever threatened social media platforms with sanctions for failing to suppress posts.
A New York-led coalition of 20 states and the District of Columbia recently sided with the White House, arguing in a friend-of-the-court brief that discussions between government officials and social media companies are “frequently mutually desired and beneficial.”
Those states argued that talks have helped social media companies to make “fully informed decisions” regarding their content moderation policies -- such as policies aimed at combatting cyberbullying or preventing the spread of false information about voting.
The Republicans who support the injunction argue that evidence obtained from Meta by the House Judiciary Committee confirms that Facebook and Instagram “censored information and altered their content moderation policies because of pressure from the Biden Administration to rid their platforms of purported 'misinformation.'”
The lawmakers cite an email sent to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and former Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg by an employee.
That email, which was reproduced in the lawmakers' brief, included the sentence: “We are facing continued pressure from external stakeholders, including the White House and the press, to remove more COVID-19 discouraging content.”
“In short, the Biden administration used its power to commandeer the apparatuses of social media companies to affect their COVID-related content policies,” the lawmakers write. “And out of self-interest, the companies complied and censored content beyond what it otherwise would have. This government coercion violates the First Amendment.”