The hearing featured testimony from Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey (R), who along with his Louisiana counterpart sued in federal court to prevent the White House from working with tech companies like Google and Meta to limit what Americans can say on social media. A federal judge appointed by Trump in Louisiana has allowed the case to proceed, setting up another high-profile legal battle in the high courts over online speech.
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The trial and indictment are part of a years-long political battle over what Americans can and can’t say on social media — and who gets to decide. Social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have pushed back against efforts to remove or reduce messages they deem offensive or harmful, with conservatives saying the effort targets conservative opinions and infringes on Americans’ freedom of expression.
They argue that during Donald Trump’s presidency, the right has focused on tech firms, which has biased conservatives. But courts have generally held that online forums, like private companies, have their own First Amendment rights to choose what to publish and what not to publish. The First Amendment protects Americans from government censorship, not the editorial discretion of media companies.
Meanwhile, Democrats, including President Biden, have repeatedly criticized tech giants for not doing enough to curb the spread of hate speech, conspiracy theories or misinformation on their platforms. In the year In July 2021, Biden accused Facebook of “killing people” by spreading fake news about coronavirus vaccines. (He later answered that comment.)
Now that Biden is president, Republicans have taken a new step, saying that the decisions of social media companies are being properly directed, or at least influenced, by the White House. If tech companies can prove they are restricting speech by government order, a court may find it violates the First Amendment.
That’s what Republican lawmakers in Missouri and Louisiana are arguing. Missouri v. Biden In that case, a Trump-appointed federal judge ordered the plaintiffs to unseal thousands of communications between Biden administration officials and social media companies, forcing the government to limit posts about the coronavirus, vaccines, and dissent. , elections and other sensitive topics.
Judge Terry Doughty heard oral arguments in the case last month and is expected to rule soon on the states’ request for a preliminary injunction that would limit how the Biden administration deals with tech companies.
In Wednesday’s House hearing, Missouri’s Bailey found a receptive audience for his claims among Republicans, while Democrats expressed skepticism.
Among the evidence Bailey argued was a mistrial was an April 2021 email White House digital strategy director Rob Flaherty sent to Google officials. In the email, Flaherty expressed concern that “YouTube is making people ‘hesitant'” about coronavirus vaccines. That concern, he added, “is shared at the highest (and I mean highest) levels.” [White House]He said.
The administration has called for a “good-faith dialogue” between the White House and Google after some Americans refuse to take a vaccine it says is vital to contain the pandemic.
The issue is whether, legally speaking, such discussions and conversations rise to the level of government coercion — or whether they respect the federal government’s right to express its own opinions about the pandemic and misinformation.
Another witness at Wednesday’s hearing, University of Virginia law professor Micah Schwartzman, said he had yet to see convincing evidence of government coercion and called the censorship claims “unsubstantiated allegations.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) agreed, saying the government has a right to prevent misinformation, especially deadly misinformation during a pandemic, and to get the message out to private actors. False claims on social media about coronavirus vaccines have led to preventable deaths says she herself initially fell for false reports that coronavirus vaccines change people’s DNA.
Jeff Kosseff, an online speech expert and author of the upcoming book “Liar in a Crowded Theater: Free Speech in a World of Disinformation,” said in an email that the case law over these types of censorship-by-proxy claims is messy and unresolved.
“On the one hand, the government can (and should) respond to private speech,” Kosseff said. But a line is crossed when he obstructs a forum, formally or informally, to prevent constitutionally protected speech.
While the hearing focused on the coronavirus response, including whether various government orders infringe on Americans’ religious assembly rights, Bailey argued that social media companies’ coronavirus disinformation policies are a “Trojan horse” for the government to create a “massive censorship organization.”
But Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-MD) objected, saying Republicans are influencing the Biden administration’s content policies on social media, pointing out that his party is pushing hard to pass laws that ban books and teachers. From talking to students about slavery and Jim Crow.
“The real government censorship in America is coming from the right,” Raskin said.