A federal appeals court has put a temporary hold on a district court judge’s unusual order restricting a wide swath of federal officials and agencies from communicating with social media companies about content on their platforms.
A three-judge panel considering emergency matters for the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday granted the Biden administration’s request to put the far-reaching preliminary injunction on hold for now while the case is referred to another appeals panel that will consider a longer-term stay of U.S. District Court Judge Terry Doughty’s Independence Day order.
That second panel will be the one to rule on the merits of Doughty’s ruling, issued in connection with a lawsuit filed by the Republican attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana claiming that Biden administration officials violated the First Amendment by pressuring social media companies to remove or edit user posts that contained alleged disinformation about Covid-19, elections and the content of Hunter Biden’s laptop.
Justice Department officials and the White House complained that Doughty’s broadly worded injunction prohibiting various officials and agencies from discouraging social media firms from hosting First Amendment-protected content was difficult to implement and could cause cautious federal officials to refuse to deal with companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Doughty’s order included exceptions for various categories of content including criminal activity, signs of malicious cyber activity and threats to public safety or security, but DOJ lawyers said those categories were ill-defined.
The stay — while temporary — underscores that Doughty’s ruling is unlikely to be the last word on an issue that has animated the political right. Conservatives in the House grilled FBI Director Chris Wray about the ruling during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
In addition, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government has set a hearing for Thursday to discuss the lawsuit that led to Doughty’s order. Among the scheduled witnesses is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longshot candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The appeals court’s order did not explain the rationale for granting what the court called a “temporary administrative stay” of Doughty’s injunction. The order Friday was issued by Judge Carl Stewart, an appointee of President Bill Clinton; Judge James Graves, an appointee of President Barack Obama; and Judge Andrew Oldham, an appointee of President Donald Trump.
Doughty, based in Monroe, La., is also a Trump appointee.