Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito extended a pause Thursday on a ruling that limits the ability of the White House and other key federal agencies to communicate with social media companies about content related to Covid-19 and elections the government views as misinformation.
In a brief order, Alito said he was issuing a stop-gap pause on the ruling until September 22, granting a request the administration had asked for earlier Thursday. The request is part of the government’s effort to undo an injunction issued last week by the conservative US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.
Alito also asked the GOP attorneys general and individual plaintiffs challenging the administration’s actions related to social media content moderation to respond to the request for a more lasting pause by next Wednesday. The 5th Circuit had paused its order – issued last Friday – through September 18 to give the administration time to seek relief from the Supreme Court.
The order was issued by Alito because he is assigned to oversee matters arising from the 5th Circuit.
Though the injunction the administration is seeking to undo is a scaled back version of a more restrictive trial court order, it still puts strict limitations on the government’s ability to interact with social media platforms.
The injunction applies to the White House, the surgeon general, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI.
“The implications of the Fifth Circuit’s holdings are startling,” Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in court papers Thursday.
“The court imposed unprecedented limits on the ability of the President’s closest aides to use the bully pulpit to address matters of public concern, on the FBI’s ability to address threats to the Nation’s security, and on the CDC’s ability to relay public health information at platforms’ request,” Prelogar added.
Missouri and Louisiana attorneys general as well as several individual plaintiffs filed the lawsuit last year, alleging that the government’s efforts to combat online misinformation about Covid-19 and US elections amounted to a form of unconstitutional censorship.
In its recent order, the 5th Circuit significantly cut back the wide-reaching preliminary injunction issued by the lower court in July, which effectively blocked a slew of federal agencies and administration officials from communicating with social media companies about taking down “content containing protected free speech” posted on the platforms.
In issuing the modified order, the appeals court said the earlier injunction was “both vague and broader than necessary,” and narrowed its scope to a few agencies that it said “likely violated the First Amendment” when they leaned on platforms to moderate some content.
“Under the modified injunction, the enjoined Defendants cannot coerce or significantly encourage a platform’s content-moderation decisions. Such conduct includes threats of adverse consequences – even if those threats are not verbalized and never materialize – so long as a reasonable person would construe a government’s message as alluding to some form of punishment,” the 5th Circuit panel wrote.
This story and headline have been updated with additional information.