“We look forward to dismantling Joe Biden’s vast censorship enterprise at the nation’s highest court,” said Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey. Missouri and Louisiana, along with a handful of individuals, are plaintiffs in the case, which revolves around government officials asking or pressuring social media companies about conservative content.
Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill said the Supreme Court decision to take the case “grants us an opportunity to affirm once and for all that the government is not permitted to use the government-speech doctrine to muffle the expression of disfavored viewpoints.”
But in a troubling twist, the Supreme Court, while agreeing to hear the case, is also stopping the injunction the lower courts had implemented, which severely curtailed many Biden administration officials’ ability to ask or pressure social media companies to censor speech. The injunction also prohibited many high-ranking federal officials from controlling the decisions made by social media companies regarding the content on their platforms.
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, wrote that the Supreme Court’s decision to halt the injunction “will be seen by some as giving the Government a green light to use heavy-handed tactics to skew the presentation of views on the medium [social media] that increasingly dominates the dissemination of news.”
Alito specifically warned the decision could lead to censorship, writing, “Government censorship of private speech is antithetical to our democratic form of government, and therefore, today’s decision is highly disturbing.”
Regardless of the injunction decision, there’s no doubt that this Supreme Court decision will likely be one of the most monumental of the 2023-2024 term. Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., who originally filed the case when he was still Missouri’s attorney general, posted on X the case is “one of the most important free speech cases in a generation.”
The case—which was known as Missouri v. Biden before becoming Murthy v. Missouri—concerns allegations from Missouri, Louisiana, and a handful of individual plaintiffs that their speech, which promoted positions disliked by federal government officials, was unfairly censored. Specifically, the plaintiffs allege that government officials’ pressure on social media companies led to the censoring of speech about Hunter Biden’s laptop; COVID-19 lockdowns and the utility of masks; the Chinese COVID-19 lab-leak theory; and the integrity of the 2020 presidential election, among other things.
“[T]he evidence produced thus far depicts an almost dystopian scenario,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Terry Doughty of the Western District of Louisiana in a decision released July 4 that included an injunction preventing a bevy of high-ranking government officials from pushing censorship. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, a period perhaps best characterized by widespread doubt and uncertainty, the United States Government seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth.’”
Doughty also argued that the pattern of government censorship suggested it was targeting a particular viewpoint for discrimination.
“What is really telling is that virtually all of the free speech suppressed was ‘conservative’ free speech. Using the 2016 election and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government apparently engaged in a massive effort to suppress disfavored conservative speech,” Doughty added later in the decision.
In September, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed who was affected by the injunction, but in an unsigned opinion, noted that plaintiffs had shown “extensive evidence that social-media platforms have engaged in censorship of certain viewpoints on key issues and that the government has engaged in a years-long pressure campaign designed to ensure that the censorship aligned with the government’s preferred viewpoints.”
That should terrify every American—regardless of his or her political views. After all, what’s to stop the next Republican presidential administration from using this same pressure on social media companies if a Democratic presidential administration were allowed to do it?
Do we want social media to represent what Americans are actually saying, thinking, and sharing—or do we want it to contain merely government-approved speech?
Even more concerningly, social media companies aren’t necessarily open about their censorship. While Twitter’s decision to block the New York Post’s explosive Hunter Biden laptop story just weeks before the 2020 presidential election was public, social media companies also have the technology to throttle or suppress the reach of posts, ensuring they show up in few feeds and reach a minuscule audience.
The debates about COVID-19 and lockdowns and masks were tremendously important. The decisions federal and state governments made about those matters had massive implications for Americans, whether it affected their ability to keep their businesses open, to attend school, go to church, or be by their loved ones’ sides as they were hospitalized. The public deserved to have a free and open debate about the far-from-settled science driving these decisions.
For too long behind closed doors and private emails, government officials have exerted significant influence and pressure on social media companies’ content decisions. This case is a welcome chance to bring it out in the open—and hopefully, it will end the practice of government officials effectively censoring viewpoints they dislike on social media.
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