A federal judge ordered Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and other officials to answer for the government’s suspected efforts to censor social media platforms, and gave the powerful officials three weeks to comply.
Judge Terry A. Doughty rejected the Biden administration’s assertion of executive privilege to shield government officials from questions and records requests in a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.
“This court believes plaintiffs are entitled to external communications by Jean-Pierre and Dr. Fauci in their capacities as White House Press Secretary and Chief Medical Advisor to the President to third-party social media platforms,” Judge Doughty wrote in an order.
The top officials have 21 days from Tuesday’s order to answer questions from Missouri’s and Louisiana’s attorneys general, who took the federal government to court to obtain the records.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry brought a First Amendment lawsuit against the Biden administration over its suspected censorship in May and have worked with lawyers from the New Civil Liberties Alliance to unearth details in subsequent months.
The attorneys general revealed last week that they had obtained records showing federal officials across 11 agencies engaged in censorship and asked the judge to let them expand the lawsuit.
Judge Doughty on Tuesday allowed the attorneys to include others in the lawsuit but rejected a request to force various government officials to identify people at other federal agencies communicating with social media companies about censorship and misinformation.
Certain government officials at the Department of Health and Human Services will also be forced to answer questions, according to the judge’s order. The HHS officials were identified by Meta, according to the attorneys, and Judge Doughty said the officials must answer the attorneys’ questions.
The New Civil Liberties Alliance said the additional discovery will create a better understanding of the full scope of the government’s censorship actions. Jenin Younes, the alliance’s litigation counsel, said it is high time for Dr. Fauci to “answer for his flagrant disregard for Americans’ constitutional rights and civil liberties.”
“We know from the previous round of discovery that efforts to censor the speech of those who disagree with the government on COVID policy have come from the top,” Ms. Younes said in a statement.
Ms. Younes’ team said the judge’s order requesting Ms. Jean-Pierre’s response also encompasses the communications of her predecessor, Jen Psaki.
Ms. Psaki has acknowledged the federal government’s private work with social media companies. She told reporters last year that the Biden administration was “regularly making sure social media platforms are aware of the latest narratives dangerous to public health.”
The records unearthed by the Missouri and Louisiana attorneys general show the Biden administration was doing much more than issuing generic warnings.
Mr. Schmitt published on Twitter an email showing a White House official asking Facebook employees to remove the Instagram account “anthonyfauciofficial,” which the Missouri attorney general said was a parody of Dr. Fauci.
“Any way we can get this pulled down?” Clarke Humphrey, COVID-19 response digital director at the White House, wrote in July 2021. “It is not actually one of ours.”
“Yep, on it!” answered a Facebook official whose name was redacted.
Other litigation has discovered traces of the Biden administration’s fingerprints on social media companies’ censorship decisions. Writer Alex Berenson published internal Twitter communications last month indicating that the Biden administration argued for a ban before the company restricted him.
Mr. Berenson said he obtained the private Twitter messages in a lawsuit filed over his Twitter suspension. He said his access was restored after a settlement.
The Biden administration remained quiet after the judge’s order. Ms. Jean-Pierre declined to comment, and her office referred questions including whether she would comply with the judge’s order to the Justice Department.
Dr. Fauci and the Health and Human Services Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Lawmakers may find more success getting answers from the government. Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin requested records of the government’s correspondence with Facebook in a letter sent last week to Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.
House lawmakers have pursued legislation to prevent the federal government from facilitating social media censorship. Three Republican representatives proposed the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act last week to stop federal employees from using their positions to influence technology companies’ actions.
The bill would restrict government employees from discouraging speech or advocating for a private entity to censor. It would impose penalties consistent with the combination of discipline and civil fines used to punish federal employees engaged in political activity in their official capacities.
• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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