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Supreme Court rejects claim White House limited free speech on social media

By?Ana Faguy,?BBC News, Washington
Getty Images Exterior photo of Supreme CourtGetty Images

The Supreme Court has rejected a case claiming the Biden administration illegally coerced social media platforms into taking down posts about Covid-19 and the 2020 election that were considered misinformation.

Five social media users, along with the attorneys general from Louisiana and Missouri, had brought the case, saying the Biden administration's pressure on companies like Facebook and X, formerly Twitter, violated the constitutional right to free speech.

In Wednesday's 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court said the plaintiffs did not have the legal standing to sue.

The three most conservative justices opposed the decision, with Justice Samuel Alito publishing a blistering dissent that spanned 34 pages, where he wrote that this may be "one of the most important free speech cases to reach this court in years".

Even though the ruling was on a technical issue and not the heart of the case, it was a win for President Joe Biden.

It overturned an injunction limiting communications between social media companies and government officials. That means the FBI and other agencies can now flag to platforms posts and accounts that they believe threaten national security.

The plaintiffs had argued federal officials pressured - or "jawboned" - the companies into suppressing speech that the government did not agree with, mainly about the coronavirus pandemic. They pointed to the platforms pushing down posts or suspending accounts after communicating with the White House.

The Biden administration countered it was persuading social media platforms to limit problematic content that included lies and misleading claims, which the surgeon general had warned would put lives at risks. It added that many of the flagged posts also went against the companies' internal policies.

"The plaintiffs fail, by and large, to link their past social-media restrictions and the defendants’ communications with the platforms," Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the majority.

She was joined by the three liberal members of the court along with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

In a dissent that detailed emails, press conferences, and past decisions, Justice Alito painted the "jawboning" as "blatantly unconstitutional".

Wednesday's ruling, he wrote, "permits the successful campaign of coercion in this case to stand as an attractive model for future officials who want to control what the people say, hear, and think".

By rejecting the case, too, the court was helping send a message: "If a coercive campaign is carried out with enough sophistication, it may get by."

Before Wednesday's decision, a federal district judge in Louisiana had sided with social media users and agreed White House officials violated the right to free speech. A federal appeals court later agreed with that ruling but narrowed its scope to include fewer federal officials.

This is the second case the highest court in the country has thrown out because it did not believe the plaintiffs had the standing to sue. It also rejected a case involving the abortion drug mifepristone due to standing.


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