“Abuse of power”: Experts rip Trump judge’s “deranged and dangerous” limits on anti-disinfo efforts

No judge issues a 155-page opinion on July 4 unless they want to boost career or get media attention, expert says

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published July 5, 2023 9:03AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on June 13, 2023. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on June 13, 2023. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A federal judge in Louisiana on Tuesday ruled that the Biden administration likely violated the First Amendment by targeting COVID disinformation on social media and blocked the administration from having any contact with social media firms about discouraging or removing Frist Amendment-protected speech.

District Court Judge Terry Doughty, a Trump appointee, issued a wide-reaching 155-page opinion in a lawsuit brought by Republican-led states on the July 4 holiday when most federal courts were closed.

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, a period perhaps best characterized by widespread doubt and uncertainty, the United States Government seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian 'Ministry of Truth,'" the judge wrote, citing a range of topics that he said "all were suppressed" on social media at the behest of administration officials, including posts expressing opposition to COVID vaccines, masking, lockdowns and the lab-leak theory as well as posts disputing the legitimacy of the 2020 election and posts pushing content related to Hunter Biden's laptop.

"This targeted suppression of conservative ideas is a perfect example of viewpoint discrimination of political speech," Doughty wrote. "American citizens have the right to engage in free debate about the significant issues affecting the country … the evidence produced thus far depicts an almost dystopian scenario."

Justice Department lawyers argued that officials had simply urged the social media companies to police their own platforms and that their communications were protected by the First Amendment.

Biden in July 2021 warned that social media companies were "killing people" by not policing anti-vaccine content.

"The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and they're killing people," he said at the time.

Doughty's order bars numerous administration officials, including all employees of the FBI and Justice Department, from contacting social media companies for the purpose of removing constitutionally protected posts.

The ruling can still be appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals but the administration has not said whether it will do so.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

New York University Law Prof. Ryan Goodman marveled at the judge's "extraordinary" and "far-reaching" order, noting that it carves out an exception for the administration to continue to contact companies about "national security threats."

"A federal judge telling willing parties they can't chat as a constitutional problem is mind-boggling stupid and an abuse of power," tweeted Georgia State Law Prof. Anthony Michael Kreis.

Sherrilyn Ifill, a civil rights attorney and former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said it was "deranged & dangerous" to label efforts to ask tech executives to act responsibly and publicly urging the need to end tech immunity as "censorship."

"The evidence cited by the judge doesn't add up to govt censorship. Unless the govt is muzzled from calling out disinformation or reaching out to corporate leaders during a global emergency to ask for care & caution. But it's a nice set up for 2024 for Republicans," she tweeted.

"This is a truly astonishing ruling that will compromise the health, safety, and yes, liberty of some so others can spread false, harmful information in the name of free speech," wrote MSNBC legal analyst Lisa Rubin.

"Remember," she added, "No district court judge issues a 155-page opinion on a federal holiday (much less July 4th) unless he intends to make a career-altering statement and craves major media attention."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

MORE FROM Igor Derysh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aggregate Covid Donald Trump Joe Biden Politics