As I explained previously, the government appealed the district court’s preliminary injunction in Missouri v. Biden, which would prohibit the government from pressuring social media companies to censor Americans online. Two days ago, a three-judge panel in the 5th Circuit court of appeals heard oral arguments from both sides.
Alex Gutentag over at Public yesterday provided a great summary of the judge’s responses during the hearing:
Yesterday the Fifth Circuit court heard oral arguments in the Missouri v. Biden case, and the judges did not hold back. One judge suggested the government “strongarms” social media companies and that their meetings had included “veiled and not-so-veiled threats.”
Another judge described the exchange between the Biden administration and tech companies as the government saying, “Jump!” and the companies responding, “How high?”
“That’s a really nice social media company you got there. It’d be a shame if something happened to it,” the judge said, describing the government’s coercive tactics.
Attorney John Sauer, representing Louisiana, masterfully argued that the government had repeatedly violated the First Amendment. He pointed to specific evidence of coercion in the Facebook Files.
“You have a really interesting snapshot into what Facebook C-suite is saying,” Sauer explained. “They’re emailing Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and saying things like… ‘Why were we taking out speech about the origins of covid and the lab leak theory?’” The response, Sauer said, was, “Well, we shouldn’t have done it, but we’re under pressure from the administration.”
He also cited an email from Nick Clegg, Facebook President of Global Affairs, that pointed to “bigger fish to fry with the Administration — data flows, etc.”
On Monday, Public reported that these “data flows” referred to leverage the Biden administration had over the company; Facebook needed the White House to negotiate a deal with the European Union. Only through this deal could Facebook maintain access to user data that is crucial for its $1.2 billion annual European business.
But Sauer also made it clear that coercion was not the only basis on which the court could rule against the Biden administration. Joint activity between the White House and social media platforms would also be unconstitutional.
Sauer compared what the government had done to book burning. “Imagine a scenario where senior White House staffers contact book publishers… and tell them, ‘We want to have a book burning program, and we want to help you implement this program… We want to identify for you the books that we want burned, and by the way, the books that we want burned are the books that criticize the administration and its policies.”
Daniel Tenny, the attorney for the Department of Justice, was left nitpicking and misrepresenting the record. In one instance, he denied that Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins had hatched a plan to orchestrate a “takedown” of the Great Barrington Declaration. Why? Because, Tenny said, according to their emails, they actually planned a takedown of “the premises of the Great Barrington Declaration.”
Tenny also stated that social media companies had not removed any true content. From the case’s discovery as well as the Facebook Files we know that is far from true. Facebook, against internal research and advice, did remove “often-true content” that might discourage people from getting vaccinated. Facebook’s own emails clearly suggest that the company only did this due to pressure from figures within the Biden Administration.
Tenny also claimed that when Rob Flaherty, the White House director of Digital Strategy, dropped the F-bomb in an exchange with Facebook it was not about content moderation. In fact, it was precisely about content moderation and occurred during a conversation about how Instagram was throttling Biden’s account. Ironically, the account couldn’t gain followers because Meta’s algorithm had determined that it was spreading vaccine misinformation.
Later, Sauer demolished an earthquake hypothetical that Tenny had introduced to justify state-sponsored censorship. “You can say this earthquake-related speech that’s disinformation is false, it’s wrong,” Sauer said. “The government can say it’s bad, but the government can’t say, ‘Social media platforms, you need to take it down.’ Just like a government can’t stand at the podium and say, ‘Barnes and Noble, you need to burn the bad books, burn the Communist books, whatever it is.’ They can’t say take down speech on the basis of content.”
Based on this hearing, the plaintiffs in Missouri v. Biden may have a strong chance of winning. Biden’s DOJ simply had no valid arguments to present. The evidence is clear: the administration brazenly engaged in an unlawful censorship campaign and instrumentalized private companies to do its bidding. This total disregard for fundamental civil liberties will be a stain on the Democratic Party for years to come.
Matt Taibbi’s reporting on this at Racket News yesterday was likewise excellent. I especially appreciated his colorful account of our brilliant lawyer, John Sauer. A few excerpts:…