By Nate Raymond and Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) -A federal appeals court on Friday ruled the White House, the FBI and top health officials may not "coerce or significantly encourage" social-media companies to remove content the Biden administration considers misinformation, including about COVID-19.
But the three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed much of an injunction issued by a Louisiana judge that restricted Democratic President Joe Biden's administration from communicating with social-media companies.
The court placed that injunction on hold for 10 days so the administration could seek the U.S. Supreme Court's review. The U.S. Department of Justice, which is defending the administration, declined to comment.
The Biden administration has argued that it asked social-media companies to take down posts it considered to be harmful misinformation, but never forced them to do so.
The lower-court judge found that U.S. officials illegally coerced Meta Platforms' Facebook, Alphabet's YouTube and X Corp, formerly Twitter, into censoring posts related to COVID-19 and allegations of election fraud.
The 5th Circuit agreed with the Republican state attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, who had alleged that numerous federal officials coerced social-media platforms into censoring content in violation of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment's free speech protections.
While officials have an interest in engaging with social-media firms about misinformation, "the government is not permitted to advance these interests to the extent that it engages in viewpoint suppression," the panel wrote.
But the court, in an unsigned opinion by three judges appointed by Republican presidents, vacated much of U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty's injunction, with the exception of a provision concerning alleged coercion, which it narrowed.
The 5th Circuit said the narrower injunction applied to the White House, the surgeon general, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the FBI, but would no longer apply to other federal officials covered by the lower court order.
"Social-media platforms' content-moderation decisions must be theirs and theirs alone," the court wrote, as it barred officials at those agencies from coercing or significantly encouraging social media companies to remove content.
The ruling was hailed on X by Missouri's Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who said it would stop federal officials "from violating the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans."
The attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri, along with several social-media users, had sued last year, saying Facebook, YouTube and Twitter engaged in censorship as a result of repeated urging by government officials and threats of heightened regulatory enforcement.
The lawsuit said the censored views included content questioning anti-COVID-19 measures such as masks and vaccine mandates and allegations of election fraud.
Doughty, whose courthouse in Monroe, Louisiana, has become a favored venue for Republican challenges to Biden's policies, in July sided with the states, finding that the federal government's "Orwellian" efforts violated the First Amendment.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston and Jonathan Stempel and Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Stephen Coates)