Appeals court pauses order that restricts Biden officials from contacting social networks

Biden administration officials can freely communicate with social media companies — for now. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has put a pause on Judge Terry A. Doughty’s order that prohibits most federal officials from talking to companies like Meta about content. According to The New York Times, the three-judge panel has ruled for Doughty’s preliminary injunction to be put aside “until further orders of the court.”

If you’ll recall, the state attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri filed a lawsuit against President Joe Biden and other top government officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. They accused the current administration of pressuring social media companies to censor certain topics and remove content. The lawsuit, the Washington Post reports, is based on emails between the administration and social networks, wherein the former questioned the companies’ handling of posts on their websites containing conservative claims on the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 presidential elections, as well as anti-vaccine sentiments. 

Doughty, a Trump-appointed judge, said the plaintiffs “produced evidence of a massive effort” by the defendants “to suppress speech based on its content.” He also wrote in his decision that if the allegations are true, “the present case arguably involves the most massive attack against free speech in United States history.” His order prohibits federal agencies that include the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security from asking online platforms to take down content with “protected free speech.” They could still, however, communicate with those entities for issues related to criminal activity, national security and election interference by foreign players. 

Conservatives have long believed that mainstream social media platforms are biased against right-wing ideologies. That had led to the launch of social networks associated with conservatives, such as Parler and Donald Trump’s Truth Social. The state attorneys argued that federal officials crossed the line by threatening to take antitrust actions against social networks and to limit their Section 230 protections, which allow internet companies to moderate content on their platforms as they see fit. It’s worth noting that former President Trump previously signed an executive order that sought to limit federal protections offered by Section 230 after Twitter fact-checked a false tweet he posted.

The Justice Department appealed Doughty’s order the day after it was issued, arguing that it was too broad and could limit the government’s ability to warn people about false information in times of emergency. Apparently, the administration has already felt its effects after its scheduled meeting with Meta to discuss strategies on how to counter foreign disinformation campaigns was cancelled. This stay will allow federal agencies to continue working with online platforms until the court can look further into the complaint. The appeals court has ordered for the case’s oral arguments to be expedited so a final decision could be reached in the near future. 

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