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A US judge has barred federal government officials from liaising with social media companies on removing certain communications from their platforms, in a politically fraught case that addresses tensions between freedom of speech and efforts to curb online misinformation.
Judge Terry Doughty, in Louisiana’s western district, on Tuesday handed down a preliminary injunction that blocks agencies such as the US Department of Justice and the FBI as well as officials including senior White House staff from meeting with social media companies to urge them to delete or reduce content “containing protected free speech” from their platforms.
Plaintiffs including the states of Louisiana and Missouri last year sued the Joe Biden administration, alleging the US government quashed conservative free speech on issues such as the efficiency of masks and lockdowns during the Covid-19 emergency, the integrity of the 2020 presidential election as well as negative content about the president.
Doughty said in his ruling that the plaintiffs were “likely” to succeed in arguing that the US government had “pressured and encouraged social-media companies to suppress free speech”. His injunction permits some contacts between the government and social media companies on matters including criminal activity and national security threats.
The case, which is pending a final resolution, touches on the intense political and legal debate around monitoring content online, with Democrats often decrying social media companies’ failure to handle the spread of misinformation and Republicans arguing platforms have targeted conservatives in violation of users’ freedom of speech.
“What is really telling is that virtually all of the free speech suppressed was ‘conservative’ free speech,” wrote Doughty, who was nominated to the bench by former president Donald Trump, adding: “The government apparently engaged in a massive effort to suppress disfavoured conservative speech.”
The plaintiffs argued that since 2018 — when Trump was president — government officials have pressed online platforms to censor content and threatened them with potentially reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants internet publishers legal immunity from material posted by their users.
The US Supreme Court earlier this year declined to overhaul these legal protections in a pair of cases brought by relatives of victims who died in attacks by Isis.
The federal government’s lawyers argued Missouri and Louisiana failed to “make any plausible allegation” of “coercion” against social media companies, according to court filings. The states are seeking to use government comments criticising social media companies as “the basis for a First Amendment claim to silence government actors of any administration”, defendants said. “That would set a dangerous precedent.”
After taking over Twitter late last year, Elon Musk claimed to have uncovered internal documents showing that the social media company had engaged in “free speech suppression”, partly under pressure from the White House. Later reports by journalists who were given the documents alleged that the Biden administration had pressed Twitter to silence Covid-19 vaccine doubters, including suspending the accounts of some critics.
Jeff Landry, Louisiana’s attorney-general, said in a statement that Doughty’s decision was a “historic injunction against the Biden administration, preventing it from censoring the core political speech of ordinary Americans on social media”.
A White House official said the justice department was reviewing the injunction.
“This administration has promoted responsible actions to protect public health, safety, and security when confronted by challenges like a deadly pandemic and foreign attacks on our elections,” the official said in a statement, adding that social media businesses “have a critical responsibility to take account of the effects their platforms are having on the American people, but make independent choices about the information they present”.
Twitter and Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Meta, Facebook’s parent, declined to comment.