Justice Alito: Government Treats Social Media Companies ‘Like Their Subordinates’

As a high-profile case related to the federal government’s involvement in censoring social media content is heard by the Supreme Court, conservative Justice Samuel Alito has stated that American government officials treat social media companies “like their subordinates.”

The justice’s comments happened during an oral argument made in the early stages of the Murthy v. Missouri case, which alleges that the United States government is supervising social media platforms and promoting censorship of conservative views about controversial issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic and treatments. Oral arguments began on Monday, March 18.

The closely followed case will determine whether the federal government violated free speech protections in the First Amendment by pressuring social media platforms to remove what it categorized as “misinformation.” Additionally, the Supreme Court justices will decide if a temporary ban on government agency communication with social media companies will remain in place pending the legal fallout of cases being heard in lower courts.

In an audio clip shared on X by Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, Alito can be heard saying to the court that “the government is treating social media platforms like their subordinates.” He also said that federal agencies have been “pestering” platforms, specifically Facebook, and that they “suggest rules that should be applied.”

Alito then stated during his oral argument that he “could not imagine” federal officials doing the same thing to “print media,” and wondered “what the reaction would be” if the same rules applied to both digital and print media. The justice added his belief that the overreaching of the federal government about social media content is “only happening” due to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

This legal stipulation protects digital platforms like social media companies from liability for third-party content put on their platforms as well as removing certain content from the site. It came about to replace a previous ruling that placed liability for third-party content on digital platforms even if the sites only removed some of the content.

Alito suggested that the federal government is coercing social media companies to do its bidding by removing these protections outlined in the Communications Decency Act.

Similarly, Justice Amy Coney Barrett questioned witnesses during Monday’s hearing about the line between voluntary action and coercion as it relates to the communication between federal agencies and social media platforms. She was told her hypothetical example of Facebook giving its “content moderation” strategies to the government would qualify as “joint action” instead of coercion.