Supreme Court allows White House to press social media companies to remove disinformation

By John Fritze and Brian Fung | CNN

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said the White House and federal agencies such as the FBI may continue to urge social media platforms to take down content the government views as misinformation, handing the Biden administration a technical if important election-year victory.

Of immediate significance, the decision means that the Department of Homeland Security may continue to flag posts to social media companies such as Facebook and X that it believes may be the work of foreign agents seeking to disrupt this year’s presidential race.

Rather than delving into the weighty First Amendment questions raised by the case, the court ruled that the state and social media users who challenged the Biden administration did not have standing to sue.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote the opinion for a 6-3 majority.

“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.”

Biden administration officials have for years tried to persuade social media platforms to take down posts featuring misinformation about vaccines, the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 election, among other things. Many of those posts, the government has said, ran afoul of the platforms’ own stated policies.

Republican officials in two states – Missouri and Louisiana – and five social media users sued over that practice in 2022, arguing that the White House did far more than “persuade” the tech giants to take down a few deceptive items. Instead, they said, the Biden administration engaged in an informal, backdoor campaign of coercion to silence voices it disagreed with – 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.

The plaintiffs also claimed the FBI leaned on platforms to remove content it identified as “foreign” when the posts were, in fact, written by Americans.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson were in the 6-3 majority.

Alito says court is ignoring threats to free speech

Justice Samel Alito, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Neil Gorsuch, wrote a dissent that dubbed the case “one of the most important free speech cases to reach this Court in years.”

He said the challengers had brought forward enough evidence to establish standing.

“The Court, however, shirks that duty and thus 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. “That is regrettable.”

He called the conduct of the officials sued in the case “unconstitutional,” “coercive” and “dangerous.”

“It was blatantly unconstitutional, and the country may come to regret the Court’s failure to say so,” Alito wrote.

His 34-page dissent went through the details of the case as he sought to counter the court’s conclusions that the challengers’ lacked standing, while also addressing the merits of their claims.

“For months, high-ranking Government officials placed unrelenting pressure on Facebook to suppress Americans’ free speech. Because the Court unjustifiably refuses to address this serious threat to the First Amendment, I respectfully dissent,” Alito said.

Biden administration was blocked last year