Occasionally, the news makes one cheer. That’s the case with a preliminary injunction granted this week (July 4) to stop the federal government from suppressing lawful speech on social media. U.S. District Court Judge Terry A. Doughty took the action in the case of State of Missouri ex rel. Schmitt, et al. v. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., et al. (which I wrote about last year). The pending lawsuit challenged, among other things, the government’s power to cajole, lean on, and otherwise less-than-explicitly compel Twitter, Facebook, and the other platforms to remove or suppress lawful speech that federal authorities deem to be dangerous “disinformation” or “misinformation.”
The government’s conduct related to posts about the COVID-19 pandemic — including masks, vaccines, and the possible U.S.-funded/Chinese-lab origin — figures heavily in the lawsuit. But other reasons for suppression and any future suppression are also in the crosshairs. The idea behind the suit is that under the First Amendment, the government may not do indirectly what it is constitutionally barred from doing directly.
We must understand that the motives for government censorship are irrelevant. Even with the best motives in the world — say, to safeguard public health during a dangerous pandemic — the government may not suppress speech directly or threaten to regulate private companies if they don’t do the suppressing. This, of course, is exactly what the government did, as we know from the Twitter Files and many other sources.
Of course, as a preliminary injunction, the ban is not permanent. That must await a full airing of the case. Still, it’s something to cheer about. A whole slew of federal agencies and officials are ordered not to interfere with social media — which means with the people who use social media. It doesn’t mean that the platforms, which after all are private companies, can’t do their own interfering. It just means that for now, government officials can’t even raise an eyebrow to signal that lawful posts should be taken down. (The courts have long held that some speech, such as defamation and outright direct incitement to violence, is not protected by the First Amendment. Whether this leaves the government too much leeway is not the issue here.)
Under the judge’s temporary order, the agencies and officials “are hereby enjoined and restrained from … meeting with social-media companies for the purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech posted on social-media platforms.”
But that’s not all. The defendants are also prohibited from “specifically flagging content or posts on social-media platforms and/or forwarding such [posts] to social-media companies urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner [emphasis added] for removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech.” How about that!
Other forbidden activities name are:
urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner social-media companies to change their guidelines for removing, deleting, suppressing, or reducing content containing protected free speech;
emailing, calling, sending letters, texting, or engaging in any communication of any kind with social-media companies urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner for removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech;
collaborating, coordinating, partnering, switchboarding, and/or jointly working with the Election Integrity Partnership, the Virality Project, the Stanford Internet Observatory, or any like project or group for the purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content posted with social-media companies containing protected free speech;
threatening, pressuring, or coercing social-media companies in any manner to remove, delete, suppress, or reduce posted content of postings containing protected free speech;
taking any action such as urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner social-media companies to remove, delete, suppress, or reduce posted content protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution;
following up with social-media companies to determine whether the social-media companies removed, deleted, suppressed, or reduced previous social-media postings containing protected free speech;
requesting content reports from social-media companies detailing actions taken to remove, delete, suppress, or reduce content containing protected free speech; and
notifying social-media companies to Be on The Lookout (“BOLO”) for postings containing protected free speech.
The judge also made clear what he was not forbidding the government from doing. This includes telling the social-media companies about criminal activity and national security threats, “exercising permissible public government speech promoting government policies or views on matters of public concern,” and “communicating with social-media companies about deleting, removing, suppressing, or reducing posts on social-media platforms that are not protected free speech by the Free Speech Clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
Whether the government will use the exceptions to get around the injunction remains to be seen. Some worry it will, and given what we know about government officials, who would be surprised? Vigilance is the price of liberty. Nevertheless, supporters of paternalistic government suppression of free speech, including establishment reporters (!) and pundits, are alarmed by the broad scope of the preliminary injunction. (On the concerns that the injunction is both too broad and too narrow, see this.)
The injunction, wrote the judge, “shall remain in effect pending the final resolution of this case or until further orders issue from this Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, or the Supreme Court of the United States.” The plaintiffs only ask the court to declare that the defendants broke the law by interfering with free speech and to forbid government officials from doing it again.
Alas, the U.S. government today can do almost anything it wants. Fortunately, a few things still stand in the way, as some recent Supreme Court rulings have demonstrated. The First Amendment is one of those things. But how long will it remain that way?