US States Fight Court Order Blocking Social Media Misinformation Efforts

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Group of Democratic US states attorney general joins appeal against court order blocking government social media misinformation efforts

A group of US Democratic state attorneys general has joined in an effort by the Biden administration to lift a court’s order that limits the government’s efforts to push social media companies to moderate online content.

The attorneys general of 20 states and the District of Columbia, led by New York Attorney General Letitia James, said in a filing with the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans that the order by a lower court hampers the government’s efforts to stop the spread of false information.

US District Judge Terry Doughty in Louisiana issued the preliminary order on 4 July in a lawsuit filed in May 2022 by Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri.

The lawsuit alleged that Democratic president Joe Biden and his predecessor Republican Donald Trump both pressured social media firms to remove posts that they deemed misinformation, effectively censoring free speech.

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The lawsuit highlighted topics including Covid-19 vaccines, legal issues involving Joe Biden’s son Hunter and allegations of election fraud, amongst others.

Doughty, a Trump nominee, issued the injunction barring the Department of Health and Human Services, the FBI and other government agencies and administration officials from “encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech”.

Administration lawyers said the order was overly broad and vague and posed a threat of “grave” public harm by impeding executive branch efforts to combat misinformation.

The order is currently on hold pending the administration’s appeal.

‘Flow of public discourse’

The Democratic attorneys general in their filing called the court order “erroneous” and argued that “in purporting to protect First Amendment values, the district court significantly restricted the flow of public discourse on vitally important issues”.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey responded in a statement that the lawsuit was aimed at “protecting the First Amendment”, which guarantees freedom of speech.

The Biden administration’s appeal is expected to be heard on 10 August by the 5th Circuit Court.

The case comes amidst concern over the influence of major social media sites, with the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) bringing in stricter rules around online misinformation.