'An Orwellian Ministry of Truth': Judge Bars Biden Admin from Social Media 'Censorship'
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A federal court in Louisiana has handed down a major temporary ruling in a lawsuit that has been called "a blow to censorship" in the fight over free speech online.
U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty issued a 155-page preliminary injunction Tuesday forbidding several officials of the Biden administration and federal agencies from communicating with social media companies over what people can say online.
Doughty said the Biden administration likely violated the First Amendment by censoring some viewpoints in online posts.
The Trump-appointed judge issued the decision in the lawsuit brought in 2022 by Republican attorneys general in Missouri and Louisiana, arguing the administration and social media companies had worked together to censor speech mainly during the pandemic involving vaccines, elections, criticizing the government, and other subjects.
Doughty cited "substantial evidence" of a far-reaching censorship campaign. He wrote that the "evidence produced thus far depicts an almost dystopian scenario. 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.'"
The judge's ruling listed several government agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the FBI, that are prohibited by the injunction from discussions with social media companies aimed at "encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech."
The order mentions by name several Biden administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, and others.
However, Doughty allowed several exceptions, such as informing social media companies of postings involving criminal activity and conspiracies; as well as notifying social media firms of national security threats and other threats posted on platforms.
The lawsuit accused the administration of using the possibility of favorable or unfavorable regulatory action to coerce social media platforms to squelch what it considered misinformation on masks and vaccines during the pandemic.
It also touched on other topics, including claims about election integrity and news stories about the validity of material on a laptop owned by Hunter Biden, the president's son.
Republican U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt, who was the Missouri attorney general when the lawsuit was filed, wrote on Twitter that the ruling was "a huge win for the First Amendment and a blow to censorship."
NEW: In the case I filed when I was Missouri's Attorney General - Missouri v. Biden - the federal court just granted a preliminary injunction PREVENTING the federal government from colluding with social media companies to censor speech.— Senator Eric Schmitt (@SenEricSchmitt) July 4, 2023
Happy 4th of July! pic.twitter.com/N9IhG1anyk
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said the injunction prevents the administration "from censoring the core political speech of ordinary Americans" on social media.
"The evidence in our case is shocking and offensive with senior federal officials deciding that they could dictate what Americans can and cannot say on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms about COVID-19, elections, criticism of the government, and more," Landry said in a statement.
The Justice Department is reviewing the injunction "and will evaluate its options in this case," said a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"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. "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."
Administration lawyers said the government left it up to social media companies to decide what constituted misinformation and how to combat it. In one brief, they likened the lawsuit to an attempt to put a legal gag order on the federal government and "suppress the speech of federal government officials under the guise of protecting the speech rights of others."
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