Supreme Court sides with Biden administration over conservative states in dispute over social media posts

The high court said the government can request the removal of what it deems misinformation on social media.

A crowd waits for decisions to be handed down at the Supreme Court in June. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
A crowd waits for decisions to be handed down at the Supreme Court in June. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration on Wednesday in a debate over whether it was a violation of the First Amendment for the federal government to police what it considers to be misinformation on social media, on topics including the 2020 election results and COVID-19 vaccines.

The 6-3 vote reversed a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which previously ruled in favor of Republican-led states that had filed a lawsuit alleging such moderation was a violation of the First Amendment. The lower court found that government officials were responsible for social media platforms' content moderation decisions.

The Supreme Court ruled in Murthy v. Missouri there was no evidence that the White House used intimidation or coercion tactics to have the content removed from platforms, therefore it was not a violation of the First Amendment. This ruling helps set a precedent for how social media companies need to serve the public interest.

Read the Supreme Court ruling here:

🧑‍⚖️ What the justices said

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote in the majority opinion that the Biden administration did not violate the First Amendment by requesting that social media platforms take down misinformation, rejecting the Fifth Circuit Court's assertion that the administration brought unconstitutional pressure on the platforms.

"The Fifth Circuit was wrong," Barrett wrote. "The plaintiffs must demonstrate a substantial risk that, in the near future, they will suffer an injury that is traceable to a Government defendant and redressable by the injunction they seek. Because no plaintiff has carried that burden, none has standing to seek a preliminary injunction."

Justice Samuel Alito filed the dissenting opinion, which Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined, writing there are underlying free speech issues in allowing government officials to be involved with content moderation.

  • Read more here about the Supreme Court arguments made earlier this year

📱 This social media case is one of several the Supreme Court has heard this term

This case was the fifth argument regarding free speech and technology that the Supreme Court has heard since October.

The court's decision could help the government's existing efforts to combat misinformation on social media — especially important during an election year, and since a reported 3 in 10 Americans get their news from social media.

The justices still have to decide another social media case: NetChoice, LLC v. Paxton and Moody v. NetChoice, LLC, which were consolidated into one hearing. Both the NetChoice decision, along with this one, will help shape standards for what free speech looks like in the digital age.

⬅️ How we got here

Two Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri, along with several other social media users, alleged that federal officials "coordinated and colluded" with social media platforms to censor speakers, viewpoints and content they disagreed with.

Louisiana federal Judge Terry Doughty and the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals both agreed that Biden officials violated the First Amendment.

In October 2023, the Supreme Court blocked the Fifth Circuit Court's ruling, with conservative Justices Alito, Thomas and Gorsuch disagreeing with the majority's decision, claiming that the situation was an example of the government censoring private speech.

However, in the majority, multiple justices from both liberal and conservative sides questioned how the plaintiffs could prove that taking down the posts harmed or silenced anyone. They also raised concerns that there was no proof that officials threatened social media companies if they didn't cooperate.