Supreme Court seems favorable to Biden administration over efforts to combat social media posts

App logos for Facebook, left, and X, formerly known as Twitter, are seen on a mobile phone in Los Angeles, Saturday, March 16, 2024. The Supreme Court is taking up a dispute Monday, March 18, between Republican-led states and the Biden administration over how far the federal government can go to combat controversial social media posts on topics like COVID-19 and election security. The case involves posts on Facebook, X and other media platforms. (AP Photo/Paula Ulichney)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court seemed likely Monday to side with the Biden administration in a dispute with Republican-led states over how far the federal government can go to combat controversial social media posts on topics including COVID-19 and election security in a case that could set standards for free speech in the digital age.

The justices seemed broadly skeptical during nearly two hours of arguments that a lawyer for Louisiana, Missouri and other parties presented accusing officials in the Democratic administration of leaning on the social media platforms to unconstitutionally squelch conservative points of view.


Lower courts have sided with the states, but the Supreme Court blocked those rulings while it considers the issue.

Several justices said they were concerned that common interactions between government officials and the platforms could be affected by a ruling for the states.

In one example, Justice Amy Coney Barrett expressed surprise when Louisiana Solicitor General J. Benjamin Aguiñaga questioned whether the FBI could call Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) to encourage them to take down posts that maliciously released someone’s personal information without permission, the practice known as doxxing.

“Do you know how often the FBI makes those calls?” Barrett asked, suggesting they happen frequently.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh also signaled that a ruling for the states would mean that “traditional, everyday communications would suddenly be deemed problematic.”

The case Monday was among several the court is considering that affect social media companies in the context of free speech. Last week, the court laid out standards for when public officials can block their social media followers. Less than a month ago, the court heard arguments over Republican-passed laws in Florida and Texas that prohibit large social media companies from taking down posts because of the views they express.

The cases over state laws and the one that was argued Monday are variations on the same theme, complaints that the platforms are censoring conservative viewpoints.

The states argue that White House communications staffers, the surgeon general, the FBI and the U.S. cybersecurity agency are among those who coerced changes in online content on social media platforms.

Aguiñaga put the situation in stark terms, telling the justices that “the record reveals unrelenting pressure by the government to coerce social media platforms to suppress the speech of millions of Americans.”

He said that calls merely encouraging the platforms to act also could violate speech rights, responding to a hypothetical situation conjured by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, about an online challenge that “involved teens jumping out of windows at increasing elevations.”

Jackson, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, pressed the Louisiana lawyer about whether platforms could be encouraged to remove such posts.

“I was with you right until that last comment, Your Honor,” Aguiñaga said. “I think they absolutely can call and say this is a problem, it’s going rampant on your platforms, but the moment that the government tries to use its ability as the government and its stature as the government to pressure them to take it down, that is when you’re interfering with the third party’s speech rights.”

Justice Samuel Alito appeared most open to the states’ arguments, at one point referring to the government’s “constant pestering of Facebook and some of the other platforms.” Alito, along with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, would have allowed the restrictions on government contacts with the platforms to go into effect.

Justice Department lawyer Brian Fletcher argued that none of the actions the states complain about come close to problematic coercion and that the federal government would lose its ability to communicate with the social media companies about antisemitic and anti-Muslim posts, as well as on issues of national security, public health and election integrity.

The platforms are large sophisticated actors with no reluctance to stand up to the government, “saying no repeatedly when they disagree with what the government is asking them to do,” Fletcher said.

Justice Elena Kagan and Kavanaugh, two justices who served in the White House earlier in their careers, seemed to agree, likening the exchanges between officials and the platforms to relationships between the government and more traditional media.

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