Supreme Court grants temporary stay against injunction barring government censorship on social media, Alito issues fiery dissent

 October 21, 2023

President Joe Biden's administration may have just achieved a pyrrhic victory at the Supreme Court by scoring a small temporary win in a case they seem highly likely to ultimately lose.

On Friday, a majority of the Supreme Court agreed to continue blocking for now a lower court's ruling that prohibited the administration from coercing, intimidating, or threatening social media platforms to censor and silence users and content the administration disagreed with, according to NBC News.

In a dissent to that decision, however, it was made clear that what the Biden administration had previously done -- and is now allowed to do again, at least for the time being -- is a gross violation of the First Amendment's protection of free speech.

Requested stay granted, case added to docket

In Friday's unsigned order, the Supreme Court granted the Biden administration's request for a stay to block a district court's preliminary injunction that had been upheld by an appeals court panel and also agreed to take up the case more broadly on the merits at some point later in the current term.

The decision places on hold an injunction issued earlier this year by a district judge in Louisiana that curtailed the government's ability to communicate with social media platforms about content moderation, an injunction that had been narrowed but, nonetheless, upheld by a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel and prompted the administration's request for a stay.

Both of the lower courts had ruled in favor of two states, Missouri and Louisiana, along with five individuals who succeeded in proving that the government had unconstitutionally engaged in censorship of disfavored views by proxy through the coercion and intimidation of social media platforms to censor certain topics and silence particular users.

In asking for a stay of the injunction, the administration dubiously argued that the lower court's "unprecedented" order strictly limited the ability of the president, his aides, and countless other federal agents and employees to speak out publicly -- not just on social media -- about a host of important matters.

Lower courts ruled that administration engaged in prohibited censorship

SCOTUSblog reported that U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty ruled in July that the federal government had "engaged in a massive effort to suppress disfavored conservative speech," and as such imposed an injunction that prohibited the White House and numerous other federal agencies from communicating with social media platforms about moderating user-posted content.

On appeal, the 5th Circuit panel agreed that the federal government had waged a "coordinated campaign" of censorship that "jeopardized a fundamental aspect of American life," and while the initially broad scope of the injunction was narrowed, it remained in place.

The administration further appealed the injunction to the Supreme Court in September and received a temporary stay while the matter was considered, which led to Friday's order to fully grant the requested stay and add the case on the merits to the docket for its current term.

Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch dissent

The decision was far from unanimous, however, as Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, authored a scathing dissent to express serious misgivings with the ruling and what it would allow the administration to do in violation of the First Amendment.

"Today, however, a majority of the Court, without undertaking a full review of the record and without any explanation, suspends the effect of that injunction until the Court completes its review of this case, an event that may not occur until late in the spring of next year," Alito wrote. "Government censorship of private speech is antithetical to our democratic form of government, and therefore today’s decision is highly disturbing."

"The President himself is not subject to the injunction, ... and in any event, the injunction does not prevent any Government official from speaking on any matter or from urging any entity or person to act in accordance with the Government’s view of responsible conduct," he continued in response to the administration's false arguments. "The injunction applies only when the Government crosses the line and begins to coerce or control others’ exercise of their free-speech rights. Does the Government think that the First Amendment allows Executive Branch officials to engage in such conduct? Does it have plans for this to occur between now and the time when this case is decided?"

Alito concluded, "At this time in the history of our country, what the Court has done, I fear, will be seen by some as giving the Government a green light to use heavy-handed tactics to skew the presentation of views on the medium that increasingly dominates the dissemination of news. That is most unfortunate."

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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