A federal judge in Louisiana refused Monday to put a temporary hold on his own order limiting Biden administration officials contacts with social media companies.
Biden administration attorneys had asked U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty in Monroe to stay his own order, which was issued last Tuesday, while they pursue an appeal. That order came in a lawsuit filed by Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri, as well as a conservative website owner and four individual critics of government COVID-19 policies.
The lawsuit claimed the administration, in effect, censored free speech by using threats of regulatory action or protection while pressuring companies to remove what it deemed misinformation. COVID-19 vaccines, legal issues involving President Joe Biden’s son Hunter and election fraud allegations were among the topics spotlighted in the lawsuit.
Doughty was nominated to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump. His injunction blocked the Department of Health and Human Services, the FBI and multiple other government agencies and administration officials from meeting with or contacting social media companies for the purpose of “encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech.”
“Defendants do not identify any specific conduct that they claim is lawful but prevented by the injunction,” Doughty said in Monday’s ruling. He refused to block is own order while it is appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The administration can also ask the appeals court for a stay.
Government lawyers have argued that the companies control their own policies regarding misinformation and that the lawsuit casts officials’ comments on issues and policy as threats. The administration said Doughty’s July 4 order was unclear about who in the executive branch it covers and what they can or cannot say about important topics discussed on social media platforms.
The order could cause “grave harm” by preventing the government from “engaging in a vast range of lawful and responsible conduct,” government lawyers said in requesting the stay Thursday night.
Doughty order said the administration “seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth.’” The order, which was to remain in effect pending further arguments in Doughty’s court, was hailed by conservatives as a victory for free speech and a blow to censorship. But critics said the order and accompanying reasons, covering more than 160 pages, were broad, unclear and could chill government efforts to fight misinformation on important topics.
The criticisms were echoed in the government’s Thursday night request for a stay. “The potential breadth of the entities and employees covered by the injunction combined with the injunction’s sweeping substantive scope will chill a wide range of lawful government conduct relating to Defendants’ law enforcement responsibilities, obligations to protect the national security, and prerogative to speak on matters of public concern,” the government’s motion said.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs countered with a weekend filing opposing a stay. Among the arguments are that the July 4 injunction carves out exemptions allowing officials to contact social media companies about postings involving criminal activity or public safety threats; national security threats; election-related issues including voter suppression attempts, voting infrastructure threats and illegal campaign contributions; and saying officials can continue “exercising permissible public government speech promoting government policies or views on matters of public concern.”
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