The Supreme Court Was Right on Murthy v. Missouri
from Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

The Supreme Court Was Right on Murthy v. Missouri

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs lacked standing in Murthy v. Missouri.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs lacked standing in Murthy v. Missouri. Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

In a fight over social media, misinformation, free speech, and the role of government, this ruling isn’t about censorship; it’s about facts.

Originally published at U.S. News and World Report

June 28, 2024 1:26 pm (EST)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs lacked standing in Murthy v. Missouri.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs lacked standing in Murthy v. Missouri. Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

This week’s Supreme Court decision [PDF] in Murthy v. Missouri—a battle over social media, misinformation, free speech, and the role of government—is a win for all Americans. Whether you love social media or hate it, whether you trust the Biden administration or don’t, whether you know every facet of this case or barely understand it, the court’s ruling was the right one.

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The case centered on state officials and individuals from Louisiana and Missouri who sued the Joe Biden White House and dozens of government officials and agencies, claiming their free speech rights were violated because the administration had allegedly pressured social media companies to “censor” social media posts containing misinformation—and by extension silence conservative voices—during the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election.

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Last year, on July 4, a federal district judge agreed with the plaintiffs, and barred the White House, as well as multiple government agencies, from urging, pressuring or otherwise inducing “the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech posted on social media platforms.”

In a 6–3 decision written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett and released yesterday, the court declared that the plaintiffs had not shown significant enough facts to bring suit in the first place. The ruling overturned a decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, a far-right court that had upheld the lower court’s judgment that the platforms had been unduly influenced by the government in making content moderation decisions.

Barrett’s opinion called the plaintiffs’ claims “no more than conjecture” and criticized the Fifth Circuit for relying on the District Court's “clearly erroneous” findings of fact.

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Murthy v. Missouri is a complicated case that highlights serious questions about balancing First Amendment rights with a collective need for trustworthy information in an increasingly polarized country. The use of new artificial intelligence (AI) tools, deepfakes, and clear uptick in attempts by foreign adversaries to influence our elections and our civic discourse only complicates the picture. Moreover, Murthy v. Missouri is a flawed case that should have been dismissed by the first court that heard it. Instead, it exposed failings in all three branches of government.

The lower courts failed colossally in their duty to demand or to clarify basic facts. The plaintiffs in this case made claims that simply weren’t true; they cherry picked language, decontextualized “evidence,” seized on false claims, and made blanket assertions about “social media” platforms while only citing to actions by one (Facebook). Rather than push back on a factual foundation built of sand, both lower courts embraced the false claims, relying on allegations rather than facts. This is an embarrassment; we need a judicial system that insists on clear facts.

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Censorship and Freedom of Expression

Influence Campaigns and Disinformation

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The executive branch chose risk aversion and over-lawyering instead of doing its job, which includes engaging with tech companies and researchers with expertise in how mis- and disinformation threatens our democracy and stability. The flawed initial court ruling included carve-outs [PDF] that authorized executive branch communication with social media platforms on issues such as national security threats and election interference, and the Supreme Court lifted the lower court’s injunction entirely when it announced it would review the case. Nevertheless, for nine months the administration stopped engaging with social media companies almost entirely.

In an election year of such significance at home and abroad, and at a moment of escalating complexity, confusion, and online threats, we deserve a government that defends against online misinformation and provocations and protects free and fair elections. Instead, the administration only cautiously began to reengage with social media companies in April, after the case was argued in front of the Supreme Court and the justices’ skepticism about the case became apparent.

The legislative branch, meanwhile, allowed a concern about government control over speech and distrust in information—one shared by millions of Americans—to be overtaken by a partisan witch hunt. Politically motivated lawmakers who claimed they were investigating a “censorship regime” abused their powers, intimidating everyone from junior staffers in federal agencies to students at universities researching misinformation and disinformation through a partnership among academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, and local, state, and federal elections officials.

Evidence from closed door hearings was taken out of context and testimony from witnesses was misquoted, even as lawmakers blocked the review of transcripts from hearings. Confidential material gathered through a congressional subpoena appeared in briefs written on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Government officials urging action from social media companies is hardly unique to the Biden administration; President Donald Trump threatened “big action” against social media companies in 2020, and launched an executive order calling for investigations into the platforms’ legal protections after Twitter decided to add fact-checks to his posts on that social media platform. While the plaintiffs’ claims in this case were aimed at the Biden administration, the questions the case raises should have applied to the Trump administration as well. Yet Trump’s actions weren’t investigated by the lawmakers or raised in the case.

In the Supreme Court’s ruling, facts, reason, and rule of law prevailed over partisanship. Bad-faith claims were met with good-faith analysis. Aided by hundreds of pages of filings by experts and advocates on all sides of the political divide, the court refused to make a judgment based on bad facts. We deserve nothing less.

The court’s decision will infuriate some and overjoy others, but it should also reassure us all.

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