A federal judge has has issued a sweeping injunction Tuesday that likened the Biden administration to an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth” and ordered numerous top federal officials and agencies to cease all contact with social media firms that could potentially interfere with First Amendment-protected speech.
U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty dropped a mammoth 155-page opinion on Independence Day, when most courts were closed. In his ruling, Doughty declared the federal government’s efforts to push back against disinformation campaigns related to COVID-19 as arguably “the most massive attack against free speech in United States’ history,” in which it “almost exclusively targeted conservative speech” and “blatantly ignored” free speech rights.
The underlying lawsuit was filed by Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri. They alleged that through both public and private messages and meetings, White House officials “coerced” social media platforms to “suppress” protected free speech. The complaint alleges that on some occasions, executive branch officials threatened social media companies with antitrust legal actions or even eliminating Section 230, the law that protects platforms from liability for users’ posts.
The Biden administration denied the allegations, arguing that the lawsuit is little more than misinformation itself — a “far-ranging conspiracy theory” — and saying that allegations of threats and coercion are unsupported by evidence.
The judge, a Donald Trump appointee, disagreed, essentially finding that “alleged disinformation” is still free speech, and the administration’s efforts to get social media companies to moderate it amounted to unconstitutional government action.
“American citizens have the right to engage in free debate about the significant issues affecting the country,” the judge wrote, adding that “the evidence produced thus far depicts an almost dystopian scenario.”
Doughty found that although the case is only at a preliminary phase, the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits, because the Biden administration’s conduct likely constitutes “‘viewpoint discrimination’ to which strict scrutiny applies.”
Doughty’s recounting of the Biden administration’s position — framed largely in the language of right-wing talking points — left little room for doubt as to where the judge stood.
“While not admitting any fault in the suppression of free speech, Defendants blame the Russians, COVID-19, and capitalism for any suppression of free speech by social-media companies,” he wrote. “Although the COVID-19 pandemic was a terrible tragedy, Plaintiffs assert that it is still not a reason to lessen civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution.”
The judge also found that the evidence already presented in the case, even at this preliminary phase, “goes far beyond mere generalizations or conjecture” and that the plaintiffs have shown a convincing link between government action and social media companies’ decision to censor certain user posts.
Doughty concluded his opinion with an ominous quote by President Harry Truman, likening the Biden administration’s efforts to work with social media companies to stem the tide of COVID-19 conspiracy theories to the actions of a repressive regime.
“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one place to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear,” the judge wrote.
He also suggested that the key takeaway from the worldwide coronavirus pandemic is not the fact that it has killed millions worldwide and more than 1 million people in the U.S., but that Americans were uncertain about how to handle it.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, a period perhaps best characterized by widespread doubt and uncertainty, the United States Government seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth,'” the judge wrote in his ruling.
The injunction names the Department of Justice, State Department, Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as over a dozen individual officials, including Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Jen Easterly, who leads the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
The Biden administration can appeal the ruling to the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit — the nation’s most conservative appeals court, which is packed with Trump appointees.
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