Supreme Court Delivers Jaw-Dropping 6-3 ruling

Supreme Court Delivers Jaw-Dropping 6-3 ruling

The Biden administration achieved a significant yet technical election-year victory on Wednesday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the White House and federal agencies, including the FBI, can continue urging social media platforms to remove content deemed misinformation by the government.

The Department of Homeland Security can still flag posts to social media companies like Facebook and X if it suspects the content is from foreign agents trying to disrupt the upcoming presidential campaign. This ruling has immediate implications.

In a 6-3 decision, the Court avoided addressing the substantial First Amendment concerns raised by the case, instead ruling that the state and social media users opposing the Biden administration lacked the legal standing to sue.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas joined Justice Samuel Alito in dissent.

“To establish standing, the plaintiffs must demonstrate a substantial risk that, in the near future, they will suffer an injury that is traceable to a government defendant and redressable by the injunction they seek,” Barrett wrote. “Because no plaintiff has carried that burden, none has standing to seek a preliminary injunction.”

CNN reported that Biden administration officials have long urged social media platforms to remove misinformation about vaccines, COVID-19, and the 2020 election, among other topics. Republican officials from Missouri and Louisiana, along with five social media users, sued in 2022, claiming the administration went beyond persuasion and engaged in coercion to silence dissenting voices, a practice known as "jawboning."

“They pointed to the decision by social media companies to suppress coverage of Hunter Biden’s laptop in late 2020 as evidence of unconstitutional government influence. But internal communications related to Twitter’s handling of the laptop story highlighted how high-level company officials were divided on whether to suppress coverage of the story, contrary to suggestions by some critics that the platform demoted it because of government pressure,” CNN added.

The plaintiffs also alleged that the FBI relied on social media platforms to remove content labeled as “foreign” when it was actually produced by Americans.

This case raised questions about the U.S. government's influence over public debates on critical issues, which now largely occur online rather than in newspaper op-ed pages. It also examined the government's collaboration with private companies to address large-scale social problems.

The government argued that the social media plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because their content was moderated before the administration began flagging posts. The Biden administration also claimed that the states lacked standing, citing past incidents of content moderation unconnected to any specific governmental actions.

Last year, a federal judge in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction preventing the White House and other federal agencies from engaging with social media sites regarding content removal.

Last fall, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed the injunction to a few agencies it believed likely violated the First Amendment: the White House, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the FBI.

During oral arguments in March, many conservative justices expressed skepticism about the state's case.

In hypothetical scenarios, Roberts, Kavanaugh, and Barrett voiced concerns about limiting the government's ability to communicate with platforms about potentially harmful information, such as social media threats against public figures or the leaking of classified information.

This issue reached the Supreme Court as the administration repeatedly warned against foreign attempts to influence elections through social media. In February, the Director of National Intelligence anticipated that China’s “growing efforts to actively exploit perceived U.S. societal divisions using its online personas” would “move closer to Moscow’s playbook” this year.

The jawboning case is one of several high-profile cases before the court concerning the intersection of the First Amendment and social media. In another case, officials in Florida and Texas are defending laws prohibiting platforms from censoring conservative content.

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