Skip to content

Supreme Court rejects lawsuit over social media censorship claims

Two states and some users could not prove that government pressure had suppressed their free-speech rights

The Supreme Court building at sunset.
The Supreme Court building at sunset. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Supreme Court on Wednesday tossed out a lawsuit that sought to restrict the federal government’s ability to communicate with social media companies about content moderation.

The 6-3 decision in Murthy v. Missouri et al. overturned a lower-court ruling that would have restricted the federal government’s communication with internet giants like Google, Meta and Twitter over what it saw as “misinformation” on issues such as COVID-19 vaccines and election interference.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, found that the two Republican-led states and social media users who filed the lawsuit against dozens of executive branch officials and agencies did not have the legal right to do so, because they could not prove that government pressure had suppressed their free-speech rights.

The decision reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which had issued a sweeping injunction to halt what it said were government communications with social media companies that constituted attempts at censorship.

The Supreme Court opinion states that none of the states and individuals who brought the suit could connect government communications about social media posts to actions taken against them.

Barrett wrote that the plaintiffs could not make a connection between government communication and moderation decisions, treated “the government” as a monolithic entity and frequently confused the timeline.

“But they fail, by and large, to link their past social-media restrictions to the defendants’ communications with the platforms,” Barrett wrote.

The plaintiffs tried to use as evidence government communications with social media companies that happened after blocking decisions against them, or government communications with a different social media company, Barrett wrote.

Facebook and other platforms restricted social media posts about the pandemic and the election both before and after government communications, Barrett wrote, saying it complicated any claims of censorship.

Barrett’s opinion also rejected a “right to listen” for social media users, finding it “startlingly broad” and would give every social media user the right to sue over alleged censorship of another one’s posts.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in a dissent joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch, wrote that the majority ignored the subtle effects of government officials’ “blatantly unconstitutional” pressure campaign against social media companies.

The majority decision “permits the successful campaign of coercion in this case to stand as an attractive model for future officials who want to control what the people say, hear, and think,” Alito wrote.

Alito wrote that social media companies have a “powerful incentive” to keep government officials happy and the government should face accountability for the actions social media companies took after the broad campaign from government officials.

Alito pointed out that a district court had termed this “‘a far-reaching and widespread censorship campaign’ conducted by high-ranking federal officials against Americans who expressed certain disfavored views about COVID-19 on social media.”

“If the lower courts’ assessment of the voluminous record is correct, this is one of the most important free speech cases to reach this Court in years,” Alito wrote.

The lower court injunction, in a lawsuit brought by the states of Missouri and Louisiana along with a handful of social media users, would have blocked government agencies from engaging in “coercion” or “significant encouragement” of social media platforms to censor views the government disfavored.

Throughout the case the Biden administration has maintained that its communications with social media companies were expressing government views about the companies’ responsibility to police their own sites, not censorship efforts.

The case has dovetailed with broader Republican complaints about censorship online and attracted the attention of House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

Jordan attended oral arguments in the case, and his subcommittee on the “weaponization” of the federal government has held multiple hearings on allegations that the Biden administration conspired with social media companies to censor conservative-leaning speech online.

Jordan criticized the decision in a statement Wednesday, pointing to an investigation by the subcommittee that had uncovered an alleged pressure campaign against social media companies.

“Our country benefits when ideas can be tested and debated fairly on their merits, whether online or in the halls of Congress,” Jordan’s statement said.

Jordan’s statement also said Congress should pass legislation that would give members of the public a right to sue the federal government if their social media posts are censored. The House Judiciary Committee advanced the legislation on a party-line vote in February.

Recent Stories

Summer COVID surge isn’t cause for alarm, experts say

At the Races: New guy on the ticket

Vance says Republicans are done ‘catering to Wall Street,’ puts financial policy in context of social issues

‘Took a bullet’: Lawmakers, delegates predict a Trump coronation in stark contrast to 2016 RNC

Biden backers dismiss party rift as ‘family discussions’

Capitol Lens | Republican National Convention, Day 3