First Amendment

SCOTUS Ponders Whether the Biden Administration Coerced Social Media Platforms To Censor Speech

Several justices seemed concerned that an injunction would interfere with constitutionally permissible contacts.


The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday considered dueling interpretations of the Biden administration's interactions with social media platforms regarding content it viewed as dangerous to public health, democracy, or national security. During oral arguments in Murthy v. Missouri, Louisiana Solicitor General J. Benjamin Aguiñaga said those private contacts, combined with public statements condemning the platforms' failure to suppress "misinformation," amounted to government-directed censorship. U.S. Principal Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher disagreed, saying neither crossed the line "between persuasion and coercion."

If the federal government coerced platforms to censor speech by threatening them with "adverse government action," Fletcher conceded, that would be a clear violation of the First Amendment. But "no threats happened here," he argued, because White House officials merely "use[d] strong language" while encouraging the platforms to suppress speech that offended them and "referred in a general way to legal reforms in response to press questions." Any attempt to enjoin the government from privately pressuring Facebook et al. to crack down on controversial speech or publicly castigating them for failing to do so, he warned, would interfere with constitutionally permissible information sharing, "provision of advice," and federal officials' use of "the bully pulpit" to "call on the platforms to do more."

Aguiñaga argued that federal officials went far beyond providing information that might help the platforms enforce their own content rules. He said officials persistently pressured the platforms to broaden those restrictions and enforce them more aggressively, and the platforms responded by changing their policies and practices. "As the 5th Circuit put it," Aguiñaga said, "the record reveals unrelenting pressure by the government to coerce social media platforms to suppress the speech of millions of Americans." And most of that pressure, he emphasized, was applied behind closed doors, coming to light only as a result of discovery in this case.

"The government badgers the platforms 24/7," Aguiñaga said. "It abuses them with profanity. It warns that the highest levels of the White House are concerned. It ominously says that the White House is considering its options, and it accuses platforms both of playing 'total Calvin Ball' and of 'hiding the ball'—all to get the platforms to censor more speech. Under this onslaught, the platforms routinely cave….Pressuring platforms in back rooms shielded from public view is not using the bully pulpit at all. That's just being a bully."

Fletcher and Aguiñaga both invoked Bantam Books v. Sullivan, a 1963 case in which the Supreme Court held that Rhode Island's Commission to Encourage Morality in Youth violated the First Amendment by pressuring book distributors to drop titles it deemed objectionable. Notably, the commission itself had no enforcement authority, and at least some of the books it flagged did not meet the Supreme Court's test for obscenity, meaning the distributors were not violating any law by selling them. The Court nevertheless concluded that the commission's communications with book distributors, which ostensibly sought their "cooperation" but were "phrased virtually as orders," were unconstitutional because they aimed to suppress disfavored speech and had that predictable result.

Last September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that some of the Biden administration's communications with social media platforms qualified as coercion under the Bantam Books test. It also held that some of the interactions amounted to "significant encouragement" under the Court's 1982 ruling in Blum v. Yaretsky. Although that case involved due process rather than freedom of speech, the Court held that private decisions can amount to "state action" when the government has "provided such significant encouragement, either overt or covert, that the choice must in law be deemed to be that of the State." That holding jibes with the general principle that the government may not indirectly do something that the Constitution forbids it to do directly.

In this case, the 5th Circuit held that the White House, the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency were so heavily involved in content moderation decisions that their "advice" qualified as "significant encouragement" under Blum. As the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression put it in a brief asking the Supreme Court to uphold the 5th Circuit's decision, federal officials "became so entangled with social media platform moderation policies that they were able to effectively rewrite the platforms' policies from the inside."

Fletcher urged the justices to focus on the persuasion/coercion distinction supported by Bantam Books rather than the question of "significant encouragement," which he said
"risks turning the platforms and lots of other entities that are interacting with the government into state actors," thereby "restricting their editorial choices under the First Amendment." And on the question of coercion, he said, it was not enough to show that some federal officials were talking about antitrust action, regulation, and increased liability for user-posted content as ways of holding platforms "accountable" at the same time that others were urging the platforms to banish specific speakers, delete particular posts, or suppress certain kinds of content.

Justice Samuel Alito suggested that the Biden administration treated social media platforms differently than it would treat news outlets such as The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and the Associated Press. "The White House and federal officials are repeatedly saying that Facebook and the federal government should be partners," he said. "'We are on the same team.' Officials are demanding answers. 'I want an answer. I want it right away.' When they're unhappy, they curse them out. There are regular meetings. There is constant pestering of Facebook and some of the other platforms…[Officials] suggest…rules that should be applied and [ask], 'Why don't you tell us everything that you're gonna do so we can help you and we can look it over?' And I thought, 'Wow, I cannot imagine federal officials taking that approach to the print media.'…If you did that to them, what do you think the reaction would be?"

At the same time, Alito said, the federal government had "these big clubs" to encourage compliance, including potential legal reforms that would expand the platforms' civil liability. "So it's treating Facebook and these other platforms like they're subordinates," he said.

The cursing to which Alito alluded, Fletcher noted, came in the context of a complaint about problems with President Joe Biden's Instagram account. "Are you guys fucking serious?" Deputy Assistant to the President Rob Flaherty said in an email to Facebook. "I want an answer on what happened here and I want it today." That exchange, Fletcher said, was "not about moderating other people's content."

Fletcher nevertheless conceded that White House officials often adopted a harsh tone when they demanded that platforms suppress messages they viewed as discouraging vaccination against COVID-19. "There's an intensity [to] the back and forth here, and there's an anger that I think is unusual," he said. "But the context for that, I think, is that these platforms we're saying publicly, 'We want to help. We think we have a responsibility to give people accurate information and not bad information, and we're doing everything we can to meet that goal.' That's where this language of partnership comes from. It's not just from the White House; it's these platforms, which are powerful, sophisticated entities, saying, 'We're doing the best we can.'…The anger is when the officials think that the platforms are not being transparent about the scope of the problem or aren't giving information that's available."

Justice Clarence Thomas, who joined Alito and Justice Neil Gorsuch in dissenting when the Court stayed the 5th Circuit's preliminary injunction in October, suggested that even amicable cooperation between the government and social media platforms could run afoul of the First Amendment. He asked Fletcher whether the government could "censor someone" by "agreeing with the platforms, as opposed to coercing the platforms." Suppose the platforms agreed that "we're on the same team" and "work[ed] together" with the government "to make sure that this misinformation doesn't gain sort of any following," he said. "The government can't censor by coordinating with private parties to exclude others' speech?"

Gorsuch likewise made a few points that might support a ruling against the government. He said suppression of a given plaintiff's speech could be deemed "traceable" to the government's conduct if the latter was "a motivating factor" in that particular moderation decision, even if it was not "a proximate cause." And he suggested that "a threat or an inducement with respect to antitrust actions" or protection from civil liability for users' posts, both of which could be relevant here, might "qualify as coercion." Likewise "an accusation by a government official that unless you change your policies, you're responsible for killing people"—a description that fits what Biden said about Facebook and other platforms.

While Fletcher focused on coercion and defined it narrowly, Aguiñaga argued that any contact in which a public official urges a platform to take down objectionable content carries an implicit threat because of the power that the government wields. If "my dear mother" complains to a platform about a post, he said, "they don't know her from Adam," so "they don't care, but they do care if it's the government."

Aguiñaga drew a distinction between rebutting misinformation and demanding its censorship. "If the government thinks there's false speech out there, the remedy for that is true speech," he said. "Nothing prohibits the government from going to that platform and saying, 'We've seen a lot of false information about election activity and COVID and vaccines.'….Nothing prohibits the government from saying, 'Here's a list of everything we say is true. That is true in our view, and you should amplify our speech. And anytime that false speech arises, you should put our posts right there next to it, saying this is the government's view on this issue.'"

Aguiñaga, who described himself as "a purist on the First Amendment," suggested that would be the right approach even when the government is responding to "factually erroneous information" about actions by U.S. troops (a hypothetical posed by Justice Brett Kavanaugh) or a social media "challenge" involving "teens jumping out of windows at increasing elevations" (as imagined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson). But he noted that suppression of some online speech, especially in the context of national security, would be constitutional if it withstood "strict scrutiny," meaning it was the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.

"If you're concerned with the breadth of our arguments, that's one fail-safe," Aguiñaga said. "No matter how broad the standard [that] the Court adopts, there's always gonna be strict scrutiny at the end of the line to save the government in times where it desperately needs to do the things that you're outlining."

Justice Elena Kagan questioned whether any of the individual plaintiffs who joined Louisiana and Missouri in this lawsuit could prove their speech was suppressed as a result of government pressure rather than independent decisions by social media platforms. "There's just nothing where you can say, 'OK, the government said, take down that communication,'" she told Aguiñaga. "The government is making some broad statements about the kinds of communications it thinks [are] harmful. Facebook has a lot of opinions on its own about various kinds of communications." Based on "standard ideas about traceability and redressability," she said, "I don't see a single item in your briefs that would satisfy our normal tests."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor complained that Aguiñaga's brief was misleading. "You omit information that changes the context of some of your claims," she said. "You attribute things to people who it didn't happen to." In one case, she said, "it was [a plaintiff's] brother that something happened to, not her. I don't know what to make of all this….I'm not sure how we get to prove direct injury in any way."

Aguiñaga apologized. "If any aspect of our brief was not…as forthcoming as it should have been," he said, "I would take full responsibility for that." He cited a couple of examples that he thought "prove direct injury," but Kagan and Sotomayor remained skeptical. And Fletcher argued that the timing of government communications and moderation decisions affecting the plaintiffs does not support an inference that the former resulted in the latter.

Aguiñaga emphasized that the government's intervention resulted in the suppression of speech that otherwise would have been allowed. To illustrate that point, he cited an email from Meta executive Nick Clegg to Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who had joined Biden in publicly charging Facebook with complicity in the deaths of unvaccinated Americans and urged a "whole-of-society" effort to combat the "urgent threat to public health" posed by "health misinformation," which he said might include "legal and regulatory measures."

After thanking Murthy "for taking the time to meet,'" Clegg said, "I wanted to make sure you saw the steps we took just this past week to adjust policies on what we're removing with respect to misinformation, as well as steps taken to further address the 'disinfo dozen' [users the government has identified as major purveyors of anti-vaccine messages]: we removed 17 additional Pages, Groups, and Instagram accounts tied to the disinfo dozen." Later Clegg told Murthy that Facebook "will shortly be expanding our COVID policies to further reduce the spread of potentially harmful content on our platform." Such exchanges, Aguiñaga said, show that platforms like Facebook were "moving beyond what their own policies require[d] because they felt pressure to take more action and to censor more speech."

In Fletcher's telling, however, federal officials were simply providing information and encouraging voluntary collaboration. Aguiñaga "started by saying that this is a massive attack on free speech," Fletcher said during his rebuttal. "The lower courts called it a coordinated censorship campaign. I want to be clear [that] if those things had happened, they would be reprehensible. It would be a huge problem." But under "a rigorous analysis of the facts and the law," he said, "we don't think that's [what] happened here. We don't think that's supported."

[This post has been updated with comments from Thomas and Gorsuch.]