Supreme Court: Government Can Request Moderation on Social Media

The image shows the facade of the U.S. Supreme Court building, featuring six large Corinthian columns supporting a triangular pediment. Engraved above the columns is the phrase "EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW." Figures are sculpted in the pediment, set against a clear blue sky.

The United States Supreme Court has determined that the White House and other federal agencies can ask social media platforms to remove content they consider potentially harmful misinformation.

Political analysts consider this a victory for the Biden administration as the President seeks reelection in a heated Presidential race. At the same time, some opponents argue that the decision undermines First Amendment rights.

Although the case, Murthy, Surgeon General, et al. v. Missouri et al., could have had wide-reaching impacts on interpretations of the First Amendment and free speech, the conservative-majority Supreme Court determined that Missouri had no standing to sue in a 6-3 decision.

“To establish standing, the plaintiffs must demonstrate a substantial risk that, in the near future, they will suffer an injury that is traceable to a government defendant and redressable by the injunction they seek,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote in the court’s majority opinion. “Because no plaintiff has carried that burden, none has standing to seek a preliminary injunction.”

Federal agencies asking social media platforms to remove or flag content is nothing new and has been an ongoing issue during the COVID-19 pandemic and previous election cycles.

In 2022, Republican officials in Missouri and Louisiana, along with a handful of social media users, sued the White House, claiming that the administration went beyond urging social media companies to remove content and actually engaged in clandestine coercion.

Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch wrote in their dissent that the case is “one of the most important free speech cases to reach this Court in years,” arguing that the decision not to hear the case is “regrettable.”

It is important to note that the Supreme Court did not decide precisely what level of communication between the federal government and social media platforms should be permitted. The court also didn’t step into any waters concerning free speech.

This was primarily a procedural decision relating to the plaintiffs lacking the standing to sue. Critics of the decision, like the three dissenting justices, argue that the federal government does not have the right to put any pressure on social media companies.

As The Guardian describes, the federal government says it only asked social media companies to remove misleading content and never threatened them with any legal action or consequences.

Misinformation on social media is a significant topic of discussion, especially as AI makes it easier for users to create misleading images. Although the Supreme Court ruled that Missouri’s case had no standing, this is unlikely to be the final time someone brings a case concerning free speech as it relates to misinformation or digital media platforms to the highest court in the United States.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.