By Brendan Pierson
(Reuters) – A Louisiana judge’s order sharply limiting U.S. officials’ contacts with social media companies could soon take full effect despite being partly overturned by an appeals court, thanks to a legal loophole, President Joe Biden’s administration said on Monday.
In a court filing, the Justice Department asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a new ruling to prevent the “improper result” of allowing parts of the lower court order “to regain effect even after having been held invalid by this court.”
The filing came in an ongoing lawsuit brought by the Republican attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana and several individuals. The plaintiffs allege that U.S. officials lobby social media platforms to suppress what the government considers to be misinformation, violating users’ right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The case focuses on posts about the COVID-19 pandemic and claims of fraud in the 2020 election won by Biden, a Democrat.
The offices of the Missouri and Louisiana Attorneys General did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty in Monroe, Louisiana in July found that federal officials had violated the First Amendment by effectively coercing companies, including Meta Platforms Inc’s Facebook, Alphabet Inc’s YouTube and X Corp, formerly Twitter, into censoring posts through frequent private demands and public threats of regulatory enforcement.
While the case was still at an early stage, Doughty issued a preliminary injunction banning a wide range of communications between a slew of officials and social media companies.
A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit on Friday agreed with Doughty that officials had violated the First Amendment, but found his injunction “overbroad.”
The panel limited the injunction’s reach to a smaller group of officials, including White House staff, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It also specified it had to be communications that intended to “coerce or significantly encourage” companies to suppress speech protected by the First Amendment.
The panel also put all the restrictions on hold for 10 days, to give the administration time to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
However, the administration said in Monday’s filing that Doughty’s entire order, including the parts that were overruled, will take effect when that 10-day period lapses because the 5th Circuit’s order will not become final under normal court procedure until Oct. 31.
It said that the 5th Circuit should either put the parts of Doughty’s order that it reversed on hold, or finalize its order immediately.
(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Aurora Ellis)