Biden officials should restrict contact with social media firms, judge rules
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White House officials and certain government agencies have been ordered to restrict their communications with social media companies and limit content moderation requests, a US federal court has ruled.
In a 155-page ruling, Judge Terry Doughty barred Biden officials from contacting social media platforms over "content containing protected free speech".
The decision was the result of a lawsuit brought by former Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who accused US government officials of going too far in efforts to encourage social media companies to address posts that contained misinformation regarding the Covid-19 pandemic.
The case has sparked a debate over the government's role in moderating content published on online platforms.
The ruling said certain government agencies could not talk to social media companies for "the purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech" under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
"Evidence produced thus far depicts an almost dystopian scenario," Judge Doughty said in his ruling. "During the Covid-19 pandemic, a period perhaps best characterised by widespread doubt and uncertainty, the United States Government seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian 'Ministry of Truth'."
The White House replied by saying the US Department of Justice was reviewing the ruling and deciding on its next steps.
"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 White House said in a statement.
"Our consistent view remains that social media platforms 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."
The order applies to several top law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the State Department, the Justice Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The order also mentioned several officials by name, including Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Jen Easterly, head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in its restrictions.
The officials are also restricted from "collaborating, coordinating, partnering" with key academic groups including the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of research institutions that tackle election-related falsehoods.
"This case raises the difficult but also vitally important question of when the First Amendment restricts the government from trying to persuade, encourage, or 'jawbone' private actors into suppressing speech," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
"This said, the court's order in this case is certainly too broad. It would insulate the platforms not just from coercion but from criticism as well."
However, the federal court made exceptions to the ruling for the purposes of contacting firms to warn them about risks to national security and criminal activity.
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