A federal appeals court on Friday paused a judge’s order that had blocked much of the Biden administration from talking to social media sites about content.
The case could have significant First Amendment implications and affect the conduct of social media companies and their cooperation with government agencies.
In its three-sentence order, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said the preliminary injunction issued this month by a federal judge in Louisiana would be put aside “until further orders of the court.” The appeals court also called for expedited oral arguments in the case.
In the lawsuit, Missouri, Louisiana and five individuals said that President Biden’s campaign, his administration and outside groups pressured social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube to take down content that it objected to. That content included conservative claims about the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 presidential election, and a story about Hunter Biden, the president’s son.
The plaintiffs secured a victory on July 4 when Judge Terry A. Doughty of U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana found that they were likely to be able to prove that the Biden administration engaged in an illegal effort to silence speech on the social media platforms.
“If the allegations made by the plaintiffs are true,” Judge Doughty wrote, “the present case arguably involves the most massive attack against free speech in United States history.”
Judge Doughty, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump in 2017, said White House and administration officials had used private communications and public pronouncements to pressure the tech giants to remove content related to the pandemic and the Covid vaccines.
The judge’s preliminary injunction blocked several agencies — including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security — from urging the platforms to take down “protected free speech.” The order said the government agencies could still discuss content related to categories including criminal activity, threats to national security and foreign election interference.
Legal scholars have said the broad nature of the injunction may make it difficult for the government to follow it. The Department of Justice appealed the order the day after it was issued.
The case proceeds amid a pitched partisan battle over online speech. Republicans have for years accused Silicon Valley companies of disproportionately removing posts from the accounts of conservative publishers and personalities. Democrats have said the tech platforms are not taking enough content down, allowing false, hateful and violent messages to spread widely.
Republican lawmakers in Texas and Florida passed laws in 2021 barring social media sites from taking down certain political content.
The tech industry has challenged those laws on First Amendment grounds, saying companies have a right to moderate their platforms as they see fit. Many experts believe those legal challenges will ultimately reach the Supreme Court.