HomeTop StoriesThe Supreme Court must reject clandestine government censorship of online speech

The Supreme Court must reject clandestine government censorship of online speech

When federal officials persistently pressured social media platforms to remove or downgrade posts those officials didn’t like, a government lawyer told the Supreme Court on Monday, they were merely offering “information” and “advice” to their “partners” in the fight against ‘disinformation’. If the justices accept this characterization, they will bless the government’s clandestine censorship of online speech.

The case, Murthy vs. Missouri, pits two states and five social media users against federal officials who forcefully, repeatedly, and angrily demanded that Facebook et al. crack down on speech the government deems dangerous to public health, democracy, or national security. Some of this “incitement,” as U.S. Assistant Attorney General Brian Fletcher described it, happened in public, such as when President Joe Biden accused the platforms of “killing people” by getting users to say things he thought were they would discourage Americans from getting vaccinated against COVID. -19.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, repeating this charge in more polite terms, urged a “whole of society” effort to combat the “urgent threat to public health” posed by “health misinformation,” which he said said this could also include “legal and regulatory information.” measures.” Other federal officials said holding social media platforms “responsible” could bring antitrust action, new regulations or expansion of their legal liability for content posted by users.

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These public threats were accompanied by private communications that only came to light thanks to their discovery in this case. As Louisiana Solicitor General J. Benjamin Aguiñaga noted Monday, officials like Deputy Assistant to the President Rob Flaherty “have[ed] the platforms 24/7,” demanding that they broaden and more aggressively enforce their content restrictions.

Those emails alluded to the president’s dismay and warned that White House officials were “considering our options about what to do” if the platforms failed to adapt. The platforms responded by changing their policies and practices.

Facebook CEO Nick Clegg wanted to appease the president. In emails to Murthy, he noted that Facebook had adapted[ed] policy about what we delete”; removed pages, groups and accounts that insulted the White House; and would “soon expand our COVID policies to further reduce the spread of potentially harmful content.”

Facebook took these steps, Clegg said in another internal email that quoted Aguiñaga, “because we were under pressure from the government.” Clegg expressed regret at giving in to that pressure, saying: “We shouldn’t have done it.”

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According to Fletcher, none of this concerned the First Amendment because “no threats occurred.” He meant that federal officials never explicitly threatened platforms with “negative government action” while pushing for the suppression of constitutionally protected speech.

That position is difficult to reconcile with the Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling Bantam Books v. Sullivan. In that case, the Court found that the Commission for the Promotion of Morality in Rhode Island’s Youth had violated the First Amendment by pressuring book distributors to drop titles it deemed objectionable.

Notably, the commission itself had no enforcement power, and at least some of the books it flagged did not meet the Supreme Court’s test of obscenity, meaning the distributors were not breaking any law by selling them. The Court nevertheless concluded that the commission’s communications, which ostensibly sought voluntary “cooperation” but were “worded practically as orders,” were unconstitutional because they aimed to suppress unfavorable speech and had a predictable result.

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The Biden administration’s social media interference bears a strong resemblance to that situation. But Fletcher argued that federal officials were simply using “the pulpit” to convince platforms that they had a “responsibility” to curtail dangerous speech.

“Pushing platforms in back rooms, shielded from public view, is not using the pulpit at all,” Aguiñaga noted. “That’s just bullying.”

Free Press, a misnamed organization that aims to promote “positive social change, racial justice, and meaningful engagement in public life,” warns that a ruling against the government “could leave social media platforms with disinformation.” In other words, a ruling for the government would give it the power to define “misinformation” and demand its removal — something the First Amendment clearly forbids.

© Copyright 2024 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

The post Supreme Court Must Reject Clandestine Government Censorship of Online Speech appeared first on Reason.com.

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