Perhaps symbolically, on July 4 a federal judge in Louisiana enjoined a long list of federal officers, including White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, from communicating with social media companies in efforts to suppress speech. The government’s machinery for working hand-in-glove with Google, Meta, and (pre-Elon Musk) Twitter to determine jointly what facts and messages can be shared with the public concerning the Covid-19 pandemic came to a dead stop.
Not unexpectedly, after days of Beltway insiders describing the ruling as the reckless product of an uninformed rural judge, the Biden administration asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the injunction, which it has done. For the White House and executive agencies, the ability to control speech online is apparently too great a political tool to give up without a fight.
Judge Terry Doughty’s injunction had determined that the plaintiffs in the case were likely to show that public health officials had conspired with social media platforms to censor empirically established facts about Covid-19: its origins, how it spread, what individuals could do to protect themselves, and the efficacy and dangers of the vaccines. In doing so, those officials impinged on Americans’ right to expect the truth from their government.
From virtually the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government adopted a “take no prisoners” strategy on controlling information about Covid. When Francis Collins, then head of the National Institutes of Health, and Anthony Fauci, chief Covid advisor to Presidents Trump and Biden, found their mistaken belief that everyone was equally susceptible to Covid challenged, they set out to silence dissent.
Scientists who argued that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should focus its preventive efforts on more vulnerable populations, including those over 65, found their posts removed from social media platforms by nameless operatives prompted by government liaisons, several of whom are named as defendants. The justification, without any evidence or explanation, was that their views constituted “misinformation,” an Orwellian characterization encouraged by federal officials, according to Judge Doughty.
Two scientists became particular targets: Stanford professor Jay Bhattachararya and Harvard biostatician Martin Kulldorff, both of whom joined the case as plaintiffs, were victims of the cozy and likely illegal relationship between federal public-health agencies and social media. They were right, of course, to advise a strategy that prioritized protecting the elderly. Had Collins and Fauci listened, many fewer Americans would have died from Covid.
The unchecked tactics of public-health officials have become an increasing threat to Americans’ individual freedom. Seemingly high on their power to disrupt the nation’s civic life, these officials have ignored restraints meant to prevent government from abusing our constitutional freedoms. Writing in an immigration case last May, Justice Neil Gorsuch observed, “Since March 2020, we have experienced the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country.” In two cases, the Supreme Court rejected the CDC’s attempt to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium, supposedly necessary to fight the pandemic, and a federal attempt to mandate Covid vaccinations for employees of large businesses.
Reflecting on how the government used the Covid crisis to expand its powers, Gorsuch noted that officials “issued emergency decrees on a breathtaking scale” and imposed “lockdown orders forcing people to remain in their homes.” Gorsuch observed that the government had closed churches and surveilled their parking lots, gathering license plate numbers and threatening congregants with criminal penalties, all while allowing politically favored businesses like casinos to remain open. In moments of extreme threats like the pandemic, Gorsuch wrote, many citizens need “only a nudge” before they will accede to the loss of cherished civil liberties, including the right “to worship freely, to debate public policy without censorship, to gather with friends and family, or simply to leave our homes.”
One hopes that Judge Doughty’s injunction will soon be restored and that the plaintiffs will prevail, thus denying our public-health elite the ability to lean on social media platforms in their effort to suppress the truth about Covid—or the next crisis that comes along.
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