Supreme Court pauses order curbing Biden administration efforts to block social media posts

FILE - A smartphone displays the apps for Facebook and Messenger in New Orleans, Aug. 11, 2019. The European Union on Wednesday targeted Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google parent Alphabet, Facebook owner Meta and TikTok parent ByteDance under new digital rules aimed at reining in the market power of online companies. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily blocked a lower court order curbing Biden administration efforts to combat controversial social media posts on topics including COVID-19 and election security.

White House communications staffers, the surgeon general and the FBI are among those affected by the order, which resulted from a lawsuit claiming the White House and executive branch agencies unconstitutionally squelched conservative points of view. The administration asked the Supreme Court to put the order on hold while it prepares an appeal.

The lower court order was to take effect Monday. Thursday's Supreme Court order delays the effective date until Sept. 22. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit have until Wednesday to file a response.

A federal judge in north Louisiana previously issued a sweeping order on July 4 that effectively blocked multiple government agencies from contacting platforms such as Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) to urge that content be removed.

A panel of three judges on the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week significantly whittled down that order, eliminating some defendants and cutting away language that prohibited mere encouragement of content changes.

But the panel also said the administration had likely brought unconstitutional pressure on media platforms and it said officials cannot attempt to “coerce or significantly encourage” changes in online content.

The softened order still went too far, the administration said Thursday. The 5th Circuit ruling came "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.”

The states of Missouri and Louisiana filed the lawsuit, along with a conservative website owner and four people opposed to the administration’s COVID-19 policy. They accused administration officials of coercing platforms to take down content under the threat of possible antitrust actions or changes to federal law shielding them from lawsuits over their users’ posts.

COVID-19 vaccines, the FBI’s handling of a laptop that belonged to President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and election fraud allegations were among the topics spotlighted in the lawsuit.

“Of course, the government cannot punish people for expressing different views," the brief said. "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.”

McGill reported from New Orleans