Supreme Court sides with White House in social media post removal case

The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a challenge to White House efforts to curb misinformation on social media sites during the coronavirus pandemic and elections, finding that those opposed had no legal standing to sue.

In a 6-3 ruling issued Wednesday, the nation’s highest court ruled against two states and five social media users who claimed that their First Amendment rights were violated by officials who unlawfully censored their social media posts.

The Supreme Court found that neither the states — Missouri and Louisiana — nor the individual users could show that they were directly harmed by officials communicating with social media platforms about misinformation they were seeing on the sites.

In its opinion, penned by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court noted that social media companies have long moderated content, including posts believed to contain false or misleading information. The platforms sometimes put warning labels on posts, delete them, make them less visible for users or bar users from making money off them.

In 2021, government officials began pressing social media companies to remove purported misinformation that they saw circulating during the coronavirus pandemic and around the 2020 presidential election and the 2022 midterm elections.

“While the record reflects that the Government defendants played a role in at least some of the platforms’ moderation choices, the evidence indicates that the platforms had independent incentives to moderate content and often exercised their own judgment,” Barrett wrote.

She added that efforts to trace the decisions back to government officials were complicated by the fact that “the platforms began to suppress the plaintiffs’ COVID-19 content before the defendants’ challenged communications started.”

A lower court “glossed over complexities in the evidence” by “attributing every platform decision at least in part to the defendants” and erred in treating the defendants, plaintiffs and platforms “each as a unified whole,” Barrett wrote.

In a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, Justice Samuel Alito said the case might be “one of the most important free speech cases to reach this Court in years.”

Alito wrote that at least one defendant — Jill Hines, a health care activist who dealt with COVID-19-related restrictions on Facebook — showed standing to sue, creating a situation where “we are obligated to tackle the free speech issue that the case presents.”

“The Court, however, shirks that duty and thus permits the successful campaign of coercion in this case to stand as an attractive model for future officials who want to control what the people say, hear, and think,” he wrote.

The case could have major implications for the government’s efforts to stop misinformation from spreading online. This year marks a critical election year and sees nearly half of the world’s population going to the polls, The Washington Post reported.

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