Adam Liptak, reporting for The New York Times:

The Supreme Court handed the Biden administration a major practical victory on Wednesday, rejecting a Republican challenge that sought to prevent the government from contacting social media platforms to combat what it said was misinformation.

The court ruled that the states and users who had challenged those interactions had not suffered the sort of direct injury that gave them standing to sue.

The decision, by a 6-to-3 vote, left for another day fundamental questions about what limits the First Amendment imposes on the government’s power to influence the technology companies that are the main gatekeepers of information in the internet era.

I wrote about this case, Murthy v. Missouri, back in March. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the Biden administration sent notes to social media platforms like Twitter, now known as X1, and Facebook, now known as Meta, to take down vaccine misinformation that had the potential to kill people. President Biden even said publicly that Facebook was “killing people” because it wasn’t controlling misinformation on its platforms, and his administration urged the platforms to proactively remove disinformation to control the public health emergency. Officials would point out specific posts they categorized as harmful and sometimes used colorful yet professional language to make their point clear to the platforms. Usually, the social media companies would oblige and remove the misinformation.

Most of this misinformation was spread by conservative vaccine critics who said there were microchips in them, that the government was trying to alter people’s DNA, and that people would get autism from being vaccinated. None of this nonsense was even remotely true, but it had the potential to undermine the government’s efforts to reopen the country. But that bit of logic didn’t stop Missouri Republicans from suing the government — the case was originally called Missouri v. Biden, but it was renamed to Murthy v. Missouri upon appeal — alleging that it “coerced” social media platforms to remove posts it didn’t like, which would be a violation of the First Amendment’s right to free speech.

The justices, in a 6-to-3 decision, denied the states’ right to sue because it would reverse years of legal precedent. That isn’t necessarily the correct way to frame that position in this case, but it’ll do. More broadly, the plaintiffs failed to convince the court that the government coerced the platforms to remove content — the government argues that it was simply requesting the content be removed. Stripping the government of its right to request content be deleted would be a violation of its speech protections, and the court’s distinction from the executive branch prevents it from abridging the government’s right to speech, says Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who wrote the majority opinion. That is entirely correct.

The only time the states would have the right to sue would be if the platforms chose not to remove misinformation and the government threatened (or levied) some kind of penalty in response. There isn’t any evidence the administration penalized private corporations because they failed to remove misinformation — in fact, vaccine lies still run rampant on Facebook and X today, and neither platform has been fined because of it. Removing the government’s ability to speak to private corporations would throw the country into a state of chaos and anarchy, where the world’s richest corporations have no oversight or regulation. Apparently, lawlessness was a step too far for the conservatives that rule the high court, which in and of itself surprises me.

Justice Samuel Alito, who flew an upside-down American flag in front of his house — a universal distress signal — “respectfully” dissented while parroting the talking points of the moronic Republicans who sued. Justice Alito wrote: “For months, high-ranking government officials placed unrelenting pressure on Facebook to suppress Americans’ free speech.” Justice Alito needs to resign from the Supreme Court to go back to law school, because “unrelenting pressure” is not the same as suppressing “free speech.” It was the social media companies that suppressed Americans’ “free” speech, not the White House, and both parties had the right to speak to each other. Justice Alito gives no rationale for his nonsensical dissent, but I guess that’s to be expected from the Supreme Court’s most seasoned sleazeball.

Finally, as I wrote in March:

The executive branch does not have the right to demand speech be taken down unless that speech is illegal, i.e., child sexual abuse material, but it certainly has the right to request that speech be de-platformed, just like any other citizen who utilizes a reporting feature on one of the websites or a nonprofit pointing out problematic speech.

The Supreme Court did not necessarily enshrine that right in legal precedent, but it came close enough. Let’s hope this keeps Republicans from badgering “Big Tech” for a while.

  1. Justice Barrett, in a hilarious footnote for the majority: “Since the events of this suit, Twitter has merged into X Corp. and is now known as X. Facebook is now known as Meta Platforms. For the sake of clarity, we will refer to these platforms as Twitter and Facebook, as they were known during the vast majority of the events underlying this suit.” ↩︎