Supreme Court Begins Free Speech Rollback

In a highly anticipated ruling on the US government’s attempts to subtly control online expression during the COVID outbreak, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the First Amendment this week.
 

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the court, concluded in a 6-3 decision that the challengers lacked legal standing to file the lawsuit in Murthy v. Missouri.

“The plaintiffs, which included two states and five social media users, filed lawsuits against numerous Executive Branch employees and agencies on the grounds that they exerted undue influence over the platforms to censor First Amendment-protected speech. The Fifth Circuit concurred, ruling that the officials were accountable for the private platforms’ moderating choices based on their conversations. After that, it upheld a broad preliminary injunction. The Fifth Circuit was mistaken in doing so. To establish standing, the plaintiffs must demonstrate a reasonable likelihood of future harm associated with a government defendant, which the injunction they seek will compensate for. No plaintiff has standing to request a preliminary injunction because none has assumed that burden.”

“If the lower court’s assessment of the substantial record is true, this is one of the most important free expression issues to reach this Court in years,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a dissenting opinion that Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined. Alito concluded his dissenting opinion with these words:

“For months, Facebook was relentlessly under pressure from senior government authorities to stifle free expression in the United States.” I respectfully dissent because the Court wrongfully refuses to consider this grave threat to the First Amendment.”

The case began with a combined complaint from Missouri and Louisiana that contested the legitimacy of federal agencies collaborating with social media corporations to stifle viewpoints that the government disagreed with. The case’s initial name was Missouri v. Biden. A District Court Judge Terry Doughty’s injunction was the result, barring a number of Biden administration officials from contacting social media platforms “with the intent of pressuring, urging, or inducing in any way the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech.” The Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services, the State Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were among the agencies covered by the junction. Moreover, it prohibited government ties with some academic programs that investigate “disinformation.”

Even if the ruling is disappointing, it is not shocking because, during oral arguments, the majority of the judges appeared doubtful about the case.

Author: Blake Ambrose

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