A Donald Trump–appointed judge has handed right-wingers a dream ruling as far as their belief that the federal government and Big Tech companies have conspired to censor them on social media is concerned. In a scathing and very long 155-page opinion filed Tuesday, US District Court judge Terry Doughty claimed Joe Biden’s administration used “Orwellian” censorship tactics during the pandemic, possibly violating the First Amendment by encouraging companies like Twitter and Facebook to remove scientifically unsound attacks on public health measures (like anti-vaccine rhetoric) as well as by flagging accounts pretending to be members of Biden’s family, conspiracies about the validity of the 2020 election, and posts about the Hunter Biden laptop scandal.
The injunction, which will limit the administration from communicating with social media companies about their content, was the result of a lawsuit launched by the Republican attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, who accused the administration of waging a “federal censorship enterprise.” The sweeping preliminary injunction—effective immediately—specifically named Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, and the FBI and Justice Department, with the ruling saying they cannot contact social media companies with “the purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech.”
The ruling could severely hamper the government’s efforts to address widespread misinformation, which Doughty called akin to “an almost dystopian scenario,” claiming, “the United States Government seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth’” during the pandemic. As pointed out by The New York Times, Doughty has a history of ruling favorably for conservatives, blocking the Biden administration’s vaccination mandate for health care workers.
The ruling is not final but will remain in place while proceedings in the lawsuit continue. “This Administration has promoted responsible actions to protect public health, safety, and security when confronted by challenges like a deadly pandemic and foreign attacks on our elections,” a White House official said, per The Washington Post. “Our consistent view remains that social media platforms have a critical responsibility to take account of the effects their platforms are having on the American people, but make independent choices about the information they present.”
One First Amendment law expert, Jameel Jaffer, who runs the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, told the Times, “It can’t be that the government violates the First Amendment simply by engaging with the platforms about their content-moderation decisions and policies. If that’s what the court is saying here, it’s a pretty radical proposition that isn’t supported by the case law.” Likewise, CNN’s legal analyst Elie Honig said that it was an openly ideological decision. “This is one of the most aggressive, far-reaching rulings you’ll ever see. What this judge is purporting to do is to micromanage the day-to-day interactions between the entire executive branch and the leading social media companies…this is a very activist judicial opinion.”
In February, House Republicans held a congressional hearing to prove Twitter’s bias against them (a hearing that ultimately revealed that the company had actually loosened rules around abusive language against immigrants in light of Donald Trump’s tweets, and suggested that Trump’s team had contacted Twitter to remove a Chrissy Teigen post the former president didn’t like). Conservatives are already hailing this ruling as a huge victory. In a statement, Louisiana attorney general Jeff Landry, a Republican, linked the “historic ruling” in the right’s broader war against social media companies. “Today, we won an historic injunction against the Biden Administration, preventing it from censoring the core political speech of ordinary Americans on social media,” wrote Landry. “Today’s historic ruling is a big step in the continued fight to prohibit our government from unconstitutional censorship.”
Notably, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the anti-vax celebrity who is now making a long shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, also praised the ruling. “Federal judge orders President Biden to stop censoring his critics including me…. Happy Independence Day Everyone!” he tweeted on Tuesday.