The Supreme Court will decide a dispute over whether government efforts to combat disinformation online violate the free speech rights of users on social media platforms.
The justices made the announcement in an order Friday that also blocked a lower court injunction that would have restricted the Biden administration’s ability to communicate with social media companies.
The brief, unexplained order allows the justices to pause the injunction while they decide the case by the conclusion of the term at the end of June.
In the case, two Republican-led states, Missouri and Louisiana, and five social media users allege that government efforts to have social media companies police false information violated their First Amendment rights. The states and users argued that government efforts to convince social media companies to take down posts about COVID-19 and other issues amounted to government coercion.
The Biden administration filed the emergency application last month seeking to block an injunction first issued by a federal district judge in Louisiana. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit modified the injunction.
The initial district court’s injunction would have barred the Biden administration from communicating with social media companies in a way that was “urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech.” The 5th Circuit narrowed that injunction, ruling that the White House, FBI and top health officials could not “coerce or significantly encourage” social media companies to remove content. The 5th Circuit panel wrote that federal government efforts to have social media companies police false information about the pandemic effectively violated the First Amendment rights of Americans.
The Biden administration told the Supreme Court that the court rulings would make judges “the superintendent of the Executive Branch’s communications with and about social media platforms” and said they were an unprecedented intrusion into the executive branch.
Meanwhile, the states have argued that the Biden administration engaged in a campaign to suppress the First Amendment rights of Americans. When federal officials reach out to private companies to “flag” content online, “they induce platforms to take action against private speech that the platforms otherwise would not take,” the states wrote in Supreme court filings.
Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas dissented from the high court’s order Friday, and Alito wrote a five-page dissent. He criticized the majority for being too lenient on the Biden administration and potentially allowing censorship to persist.
“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. That is most unfortunate,” Alito wrote.
The case has become a flashpoint in the ongoing political debate over censorship online, with Republicans in Congress pointing to it as an example of anti-conservative bias among social media companies.