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Murthy v. Missouri

Post categories

  1. First Amendment

Court: U.S. Supreme Court

Date Filed: Dec. 22, 2023

Background: In May 2022, the states of Missouri and Louisiana, as well as private social media users, sued a group of federal officials from the White House, Centers for Disease Control, the FBI, and other agencies for allegedly coercing social media platforms to take down their posts as part of government efforts to help platforms moderate misinformation related to COVID-19, election fraud, and other issues, a practice sometimes known as “jawboning.”

The plaintiffs argued that the federal officials “coerced, threatened, and pressured [the] social-media platforms to censor [them],” in violation of their First Amendment rights. However, the government officials argued that their conversations with the platforms were part of routine communications intended to highlight misleading or inaccurate information, and that the decisions to remove or downgrade certain posts were ultimately made by the private social media platforms.

In July 2023, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana mostly granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction prohibiting federal officials from communicating with social media platforms for the purpose of encouraging them to remove or suppress certain posts published on their sites. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit modified the injunction but affirmed most of the district court’s decision, holding that the White House, the Surgeon General, the CDC, and the FBI violated the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.

The federal officials petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case.

Our Position: In a brief in support of neither party, the Reporters Committee urges the U.S. Supreme Court to carefully craft the line between coercion and persuasion and avoid a broad ruling that would chill important First Amendment interests.

  • The First Amendment forbids true coercion but expects a free flow of information from government to the press.
  • A too-sensitive test for coercion could lead to the chilling of the free flow of information to the press and public.
  • A too-sensitive test for coercion would undermine the press’s own First Amendment editorial rights.

Quote: “[I]f unlawful coordination between government and the press could adequately be alleged by pointing to ordinary journalistic interactions, the Constitution could be abused as a sword rather than a shield: a basis for gadflies to enforce a supposed right-of-access to the opinion pages, or subject news organizations to lawsuits and discovery demands seeking evidence of imagined state influence on editorial decisionmaking.”

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