Supreme Court Puts 5th Circuit Ruling On Biden Admin Jawboning Of Social Media Companies On Hold For Shadow Docket Review
from the jawboning-at-the-supreme-court dept
So, last Friday, the 5th Circuit released its opinion in the appeal of an absolutely ridiculous Louisiana federal court ruling that insisted large parts of the federal government were engaged in some widespread censorial conspiracy with social media, and barred large parts of the government from talking to social media companies and even academic researchers.
The 5th Circuit massively trimmed back the district court’s injunction, throwing out 9 of the 10 listed “prohibitions,” removing a bunch of the defendants, including CISA and Anthony Fauci’s NIAID, noting that there was no evidence they had done anything improper, and taking the one remaining prohibition, and basically chopping it back to be close to meaningless (basically “don’t coerce the companies.”)
I thought the 5th Circuit was right to use the tests that the 2nd and 9th Circuits used for “coercion,” but found the actual application of those tests to be… at best weird, and at worst potentially extremely problematic (especially in the case of the CDC defendant, where the ruling made no sense at all). That confused application of the facts to the test at hand presented a challenge for the administration, as it arguably provided zero useful guidance for the administration on how to not violate the injunction. And that’s because the court really laid out no clear way of applying the test that was coherent or understandable. It kinda made stuff up as it went along and said “that’s coercion,” even though it wasn’t clear what was actually coercive.
Even when the 5th Circuit highlighted, for example, quotes from the administration to social media companies, it never provided the context or details. In fact, it would provide tiny fragments (a few word phrases) without any indication of who said what, what websites in particular they were talking about, and what it actually meant in context. And that was a real problem, especially as the lower court took many quotes so out of context as to reverse their meaning (and in one case, added in words to make a quote say the opposite of what it really said).
That said, I still wondered if the Biden administration would actually ask the Supreme Court to review it, because the final ruling was pretty limited in scope, and there’s a real risk that this Supreme Court, which has become so political in nature, would make a decision that was much, much worse and much, much more problematic for the administration.
Apparently, the White House felt differently, and they’ve rushed to the Supreme Court to ask the Supreme Court to review things on the shadow docket. Justice Alito has now put a stay on the injunctions and asked for filings by this coming Wednesday to review the issue.
The White House’s application is worth reading. First, they challenge the standing of the plaintiffs in the case (five people who were moderated on social media, along with the states Louisiana and Missouri). The White House notes that even if you argue that the individuals who were moderated have standing, they faced moderation before the White House said anything (i.e., it was independent decisions by the companies):
The Fifth Circuit held that they have standing because their posts have been moderated by social-media platforms. But respondents failed to show that those actions were fairly traceable to the government or redressable by injunctive relief. To the contrary, respondents’ asserted instances of moderation largely occurred before the allegedly unlawful government actions. The Fifth Circuit also held that the state respondents have standing because they have a “right to listen” to their citizens on social media. App., infra, 204a. But the court cited no precedent for that boundless theory, which would allow any state or local government to challenge any alleged violation of any constituent’s right to speak.
The larger point, though, is the 1st Amendment arguments regarding the jawboning questions, with the White House pointing out that these rulings take away the government’s bully pulpit, where it is allowed to advocate for positions, it just can’t threaten or punish people for their speech:
Second, the Fifth Circuit’s decision contradicts fundamental First Amendment principles. It is axiomatic that the government is entitled to provide the public with information and to “advocate and defend its own policies.” Board of Regents v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217, 229 (2000). A central dimension of presidential power is the use of the Office’s bully pulpit to seek to persuade Americans — and American companies — to act in ways that the President believes would advance the public interest. President Kennedy famously persuaded steel companies to rescind a price increase by accusing them of “ruthless[ly] disregard[ing]” their “public responsibilities.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, News Conference 30 (Apr. 11, 1962), perma.cc/M7DL-LZ7N. President Bush decried “irresponsible” subprime lenders that shirked their “responsibility to help” distressed homeowners. The White House, President Bush Discusses Homeownership Financing (Aug. 31, 2007), perma.cc/DQ8B-JWN4. And every President has engaged with the press to promote his policies and shape coverage of his Administration. See, e.g., Graham J. White, FDR and the Press (1979).
Of course, the government cannot punish people for expressing different views. Nor can it threaten to punish the media or other intermediaries for disseminating disfavored speech. But there is a fundamental distinction between persuasion and coercion. And courts must take care to maintain that distinction because of the drastic consequences resulting from a finding of coercion: If the government coerces a private party to act, that party is a state actor subject “to the constraints of the First Amendment.” Manhattan Cmty. Access Corp. v. Halleck, 139 S. Ct. 1921, 1933 (2019). And this Court has warned against expansive theories of state action that would “eviscerate” private entities’ “rights to exercise editorial control over speech and speakers on their properties or platforms.” Id. at 1932.
The Fifth Circuit ignored those principles. It held that officials from the White House, the Surgeon General’s office, and the FBI coerced social-media platforms to remove content despite the absence of even a single instance in which an official paired a request to remove content with a threat of adverse action — and despite the fact that the platforms declined the officials’ requests routinely and without consequence. Indeed, the Fifth Circuit suggested that any request from the FBI is inherently coercive merely because the FBI is a powerful law enforcement agency. And the court held that the White House, the FBI, and the CDC “significantly encouraged” the platforms’ content-moderation decisions — and thus transformed those decisions into state action — on the theory that officials were “entangled” in the platforms’ decisions. App., infra, 235a. The court did not define that novel standard, but found it satisfied primarily because platforms requested and relied upon CDC’s guidance on matters of public health.
Of course, this is the entire debate about jawboning in a nutshell. Where is the line between persuasion and coercion? The White House is correct that the 5th Circuit’s ruling doesn’t lay out a clear test or application, and leaves things muddled, but part of the problem is that where that line is has always been kinda muddled.
And I’m not at all sure that this Supreme Court will properly construe that line.
However, as the White House notes (and I would agree) the discussion with regards to the CDC in particular is kind of unworkable:
The implications of the Fifth Circuit’s holdings are startling. The court imposed unprecedented limits on the ability of the President’s closest aides to use the bully pulpit to address matters of public concern, on the FBI’s ability to address threats to the Nation’s security, and on the CDC’s ability to relay publichealth information at platforms’ request. And the Fifth Circuit’s holding that platforms’ content-moderation decisions are state action would subject those private actions to First Amendment constraints — a radical extension of the state-action doctrine
The White House also points out that the unclear nature of the remaining injunction creates a burden on federal government employees:
Third, the lower courts’ injunction violates traditional equitable principles. An injunction must “be no more burdensome to the defendant than necessary to provide complete relief to the plaintiffs.” Califano v. Yamasaki, 442 U.S. 682, 702 (1979). Here, however, the injunction sweeps far beyond what is necessary to address any cognizable harm to respondents: Although the district court declined to certify a class, the injunction covers the government’s communications with all social-media platforms (not just those used by respondents) regarding all posts by any person (not just respondents) on all topics. And it forces thousands of government officials and employees to choose between curtailing their interactions with (and public statements about) social-media platforms or risking contempt should the district court conclude that they ran afoul of the Fifth Circuit’s novel and ill-defined concepts of coercion and significant encouragement.
I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that. The ruling (mainly in how it applies the test for coercion) is a mess, and the final injunction (while massively slimmed down from the lower court’s) is confusing and unclear.
But, still, given how much of a partisan political football this is, I can easily see the Supreme Court making things way, way worse.
It looks like there will be quick turnaround on the shadow docket issue that I’m guessing may lead to a further stay of the injunction, as the White House said it intends to file for a full normal cert petition in October, allowing the Supreme Court to hear the full case this term. So it would be easy for Alito to stay the injunction until the case is fully briefed and heard.
Again, I get where the White House is coming from. The 5th Circuit ruling has real issues, but it struck me as way less damaging than whatever else might come out of this process. But, I guess, in the long run, it’s better to have a full ruling on this issue from the Supreme Court. I’m just scared of what this particular Supreme Court will say.