May 25, 2024  |  
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Elizabeth Allen

NextImg:SCOTUS Give Biden Temporary Win Over Social Media Influence But Will Hear Landmark Censorship Case

In a pivotal decision that will have a huge impact on the high-stakes battle over freedom of speech in the digital age, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday tentatively sided with the Biden administration over a contentious First Amendment issue.

The case centers around whether the White House and federal agencies violated constitutional free speech protections by exerting pressure on social media companies to remove or curtail content related to the election and COVID-19.

The Supreme Court’s move, which comes amid a fraught international and domestic backdrop featuring a war between Israel and Hamas as well as the 2024 presidential election, allows the administration to maintain its collaborative relationship with platforms like Facebook and X, formerly Twitter.

This move enables the government to continue flagging what it perceives as misinformation for removal.

Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, emphasized the case’s significance, stating, “These are momentous, thorny issues, and how the court resolves them will have broad implications for the digital public sphere.”

In a controversial move, the Court suspended a lower court’s injunction that had previously prevented federal agencies from influencing the social media platforms.

While the majority of the justices chose not to comment on this decision, three conservative members of the Court—Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch—expressed their dissent.

“Government censorship of private speech is antithetical to our democratic form of government, and therefore today’s decision is highly disturbing,” Justice Alito warned, fearing that the ruling might be perceived as giving the government carte blanche to employ “heavy-handed tactics” to shape public opinion.

The lawsuit was initiated by Republican state attorneys general, led by Missouri and Louisiana, along with several individual users. They accused the administration of leveraging its influence over social media platforms to suppress content that they believed was unfavorable to Democrats, including posts on topics like the 2020 election, Hunter Biden’s laptop and the origins of COVID-19.

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Despite the Court’s leaning, the attorneys general appeared optimistic that the case would receive a comprehensive hearing. “This is the worst First Amendment violation in our nation’s history,” declared Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey.

Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill saw the decision as “one step closer to reestablishing the protections guaranteed to us in the Constitution and under the First Amendment.”

The Justice Department declined to comment, but the administration has previously argued that it only requested the platforms to remove harmful disinformation, pointing out that the final decision was made by the companies themselves.

The administration’s briefs emphasized, “It is undisputed that the content-moderation decisions at issue in this case were made by private social-media companies, such as Facebook and YouTube.”

The case emerges as the Supreme Court is increasingly engaged in the evolving dynamics between social media and politics. The Court is set to hear arguments later this month in related cases challenging laws in Texas and Florida that would severely limit the ability of platforms to moderate content, and another that probes whether public officials can block constituents on social media.

By agreeing to hear this case, the Supreme Court is, yet again, willingly plunging itself into a divisive, complex debate at the intersection of technology and governance.

The Court is expected to reach its final decision by the end of the current term in June, a ruling that is likely to have far-reaching consequences for free speech in the digital landscape.