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The ruling will make it easier for several federal agencies to communicate with social media companies such as Meta, Google, and X, formerly known as Twitter, to flag concerns they see on the platforms. Still, officials who remain subject to the modified injunction, including those in the White House, must remain careful that their discussions with the platforms won’t be construed as coercive.
The original case was brought by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, who alleged that federal officials unduly pressured social media firms to limit speech on their platforms, as they communicated concerns about posts related to the Covid pandemic or elections. Terry A. Doughty, a Donald Trump-appointed chief judge for the Western District of Louisiana, issued an injunction in July that would significantly restrict these kinds of discussions, though he made exceptions for federal officials to warn about national security risks or criminal activity.
The decision had an immediate impact. Following the district court’s order in July, the State Department canceled its standing monthly meeting with Facebook officials on election prep, The Washington Post reported.
But on Friday, the three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said that injunction was too broad. The panel narrowed the federal offices and agencies it could apply to and limited it in scope.
At the same time, the appeals court concluded that the White House, the Surgeon General’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation likely violated the First Amendment by coercing social media platforms into moderating posts on their sites. It also said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention likely violated the First Amendment, though its actions were “not plainly coercive.”
The appeals court decision means that some federal agencies — the State Department, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — will not be subject to the injunction. But the offices found to have likely violated the First Amendment will still be subject to a more limited version of the order.
The appeals court vacated nine of the 10 prohibitions Doughty set out in the initial injunction. The one that remained is now modified “to exclusively target illegal conduct and provide the officials with additional guidance or instruction on what behavior is prohibited.” That’s intended to prevent the action from capturing “otherwise legal speech.”
According to the appeals court’s modification, the agencies still subject to the injunction are forbidden from taking actions “formal or informal, directly or indirectly, to coerce or significantly encourage social-media companies to remove, delete, suppress, or reduce, including through altering their algorithms, posted social-media content containing protected free speech.”
The White House, Surgeon General’s office, FBI and CDC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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