By Nate Raymond and John Kruzel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily put on hold an order restricting the ability of President Joe Biden's administration to encourage social media companies to remove content it considers misleading, including about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito, acting for the court, issued an order freezing a lower court's decision finding that federal officials had likely violated the free speech protections of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment by coercing social media platforms into censoring certain posts.
Alito's order pauses the lower court's decision through Sept. 22.
Alito is the justice designated by the court to act on certain matters arising from a group of states that include Louisiana, where the lawsuit was first filed.
The court's action comes after Biden's administration earlier on Thursday asked the court to put the lower court's order on hold while it prepares a formal appeal.
The ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came in litigation against the administration by the Republican attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana and a group of social media users. The administration called the decision "startling," saying it would interfere with how the White House, FBI and health officials address matters of public concern and security.
The Justice Department said Biden's closest aides were entitled to use the presidential bully pulpit to convince companies to act in ways that advance the public interest, and that there is "a fundamental distinction between persuasion and coercion."
It said the 5th Circuit's order "subjects many such communications to a risk of contempt," and that White House staff could be deterred from calling for social media companies to exercise greater responsibility under the injunction.
The 5th Circuit had put its order on hold through Sept. 18 so the administration could seek the Supreme Court's intervention. The Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to further stay the order and said it would appeal it by Oct. 13.
In Thursday's filing, the administration argued that the plaintiffs lacked the necessary legal standing to sue in the first place. It said the 5th Circuit's ruling "contradicts fundamental First Amendment principles" with "novel and ill-defined concepts of coercion and significant encouragement."
Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey plans to oppose the administration's Supreme Court appeal, a spokesperson said.
"We are rooting out this censorship enterprise and will hold any wrongdoers accountable," Bailey said in a statement.
Louisiana-based U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty in July concluded that U.S. officials had coerced Meta Platforms' Facebook, Alphabet's YouTube and X Corp, formerly Twitter, into suppressing posts related to COVID-19 and claims of fraud in the 2020 election won by Biden, a Democrat.
That holding was upheld on Friday by a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit comprised of appointees of Republican presidents. The panel agreed that government officials likely violated the First Amendment by trying to suppress millions of social media postings by U.S. citizens.
The panel, though, vacated much of an injunction that Doughty issued restricting the administration's communications with the companies, with the exception of a provision concerning coercion, which it narrowed.
The narrowed injunction applied to the White House, the surgeon general, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI, saying they could not "coerce or significantly encourage" the companies to remove content.
(Reporting by John Kruzel in Washington and Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Will Dunham)