RFK Jr. Seems To Think The Supreme Court’s Murthy Decision Means The Gov’t Is Now Barred From Talking To Social Media

Gun Rights

from the that’s-not-how-any-of-this-works dept

RFK Jr. seems to believe that being a Kennedy and spouting anti-vax nonsense qualifies him to be President. Now, he’s taking his delusions to a whole new level by arguing that the Supreme Court’s Murthy decision means the government can’t even talk to social media companies anymore. Buckle up, folks, this is going to be a wild ride.

Vanity Fair recently had quite the takedown of RFK Jr. based on conversations with his own family members. It is made quite clear that RFK Jr. is not one to let facts get in the way of whatever nonsense he’s decided to claim to the world.

And while people can point to lots of high-profile ways in which that has played out, I’m going to point out one that is relevant to Techdirt’s general interests: RFK Jr. has been trying desperately to sue whoever he can think of to complain about getting booted from Facebook.

He has sued various social media companies, which have failed spectacularly (thanks to Section 230). He recently has decided to try suing Meta, yet again, in the belief that his Quixotic Presidential campaign somehow makes the issue different than it was before.

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However, he also sued the Biden administration directly in 2023. He kept prattling on ignorantly, arguing that the administration is deliberately trying to stifle his speech (which is kind of hilarious, given that any time he talks, more people realize what a nutcase RFK Jr. actually is). RFK filed the lawsuit in the same court where Missouri/Louisiana and some other nonsense peddlers appeared to be having some success in their equally batshit lawsuit against the administration over social media moderation.

Soon after filing the case in the same court, where they were guaranteed to get the same judge, RFK sought to merge his case with the Missouri case. Judge Terry Doughty, after issuing his batshit crazy decision in the case, more or less agreed to merge Kennedy’s case into the Missouri v. Biden docket. He issued a similar injunction as the one he issued in that case, but put it on hold until ten days after the Supreme Court sent down its ruling in the original Missouri case.

As you likely now know, after getting a still crazy (but slightly less crazy) Fifth Circuit ruling, the Supreme Court took the case, newly dubbed Murthy v. Missouri, and made it clear that none of the plaintiffs could show standing. The majority opinion also made it quite clear that both the district court decision and the Fifth Circuit decision were crazy because they were willing to accept absolute nonsense as fact, when it was obviously not.

While that decision sent the case back down to the lower court, unless you were delusional and totally committed to believing things that were not true, you would realize that this basically meant that such a case had no chance to go anywhere.

Enter RFK Jr.

The day after the Supreme Court ruling came down, the DOJ did the proper thing and notified Judge Doughty of the Supreme Court opinion. The DOJ also pointed out that given the nature of the Supreme Court ruling, RFK Jr. also clearly lacked standing. So, rather than letting the injunction go into effect, the DOJ intended to file a motion asking Judge Doughty to “vacate” the injunction he had granted RFK.

While this Court’s stay remains in effect, the government intends to file with this Court a motion for an indicative ruling under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 62.1 that the Court would vacate the preliminary injunction in Kennedy because the Kennedy plaintiffs (who relied exclusively on the same set of facts “before the Court in Missouri v. Biden,” ECF No. 6-1 at 2) lack standing under the Supreme Court’s analysis in that case. If the Court issues such a ruling, the government would seek a remand from the Fifth Circuit under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 12.1 to allow this Court to enter the requested vacatur. In the alternative, the government plans to ask this Court to stay the Kennedy preliminary injunction for the full duration of the pending appeal from that injunction, if the Court declines to enter the requested indicative ruling.

The DOJ also argued that the clock on the “10 days” until the injunction supposedly went into effect didn’t start ticking until the Supreme Court officially sent the decision to the lower court, which would be a month or so later:

Under Supreme Court Rule 45.3, the Supreme Court “will send” its judgment to the lower court “32 days after entry of the judgment, unless the Court or a Justice shortens or extends the time, or unless the parties stipulate that it be issued sooner.” The Supreme Court will accordingly send down its ruling on Monday, July 29, 32 days (plus a weekend day) from yesterday. The government understands this Court’s stay of the preliminary injunction in Kennedy to extend for ten days after that date—i.e., the date on which the Supreme Court “sends down” its ruling in Missouri.

RFK Jr’s lawyers jumped in to say “nuh uh” and to suggest that the injunction (which the Supreme Court had clearly rejected regarding the other plaintiffs in the case) should go into effect very soon.

Two days ago, on Wednesday, June 26, 2024, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the Missouri v. Biden case. See Murthy v. Missouri, No. 23-411, 2024 WL 3165801 (U.S. June 26, 2024). Accordingly, under the plain language of this Court’s ruling—and contrary to the Notice of Opinion filed yesterday by Defendants—it would appear that this Court’s stay will be “automatically lifted” on July 7, 2024—eleven days after Murthy was handed down—and that the preliminary injunction will, absent further judicial action, become operative on that day.

The DOJ then felt the need to file a “motion for clarification” from Judge Doughty. First, they point out that RFK’s lawyers are misrepresenting what Judge Doughty actually said in his ruling on the stay of the injunction:

Defendants disagree with the Kennedy Plaintiff’s interpretation, which does not accord with the Supreme Court’s rules governing the timing of when the Supreme Court “sends down” its opinions and judgments. The Kennedy Plaintiffs seize on the Court’s use of the phrase “handed down” at some points in its opinion—and if that were all the Court’s order said, then the Plaintiffs’ interpretation would be reasonable. But in the decretal language of its order—the part that has actual legal force—the Court unambiguously referred to the date on which the Supreme Court “sends down” its ruling. See Dkt. 38 at 23 (“IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that in light of the stay issued by the Supreme Court of the United States in Missouri v. Biden, this order is STAYED for ten (10) days after the Supreme Court sends down a ruling in Missouri v. Biden.”). Plaintiffs never acknowledge that language or attempt to square their interpretation with it.

But, even more importantly, the DOJ says, in effect, “hey, in light of SCOTUS saying ‘no standing’ for the other plaintiffs, how about we extend the stay on the injunction no matter what so we can brief you on why RFK also has no standing”:

In the alternative, if the Court adopts Plaintiffs’ characterization of the duration of the stay, Defendants request that this Court grant a 26-day extension of the stay beyond the expiration date urged by Plaintiffs, until and including Friday, August 2, 2024, to enable the parties to fully brief and this Court to decide (1) a motion by Defendants for an indicative ruling under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 62.1 that the Court would vacate the preliminary injunction in Kennedy because the Kennedy plaintiffs lack Article III standing under the Supreme Court’s analysis in Murthy, and (2) in the alternative, a motion by Defendants for a stay pending appeal for the full duration of the pending appeal from that injunction, if the Court declines to enter the requested indicative ruling.

In response, RFK filed something saying that the DOJ should have requested this kind of clarification when Doughty first issued his “10 days” ruling:

If Defendants genuinely found the Court’s stay ruling unclear, or if they viewed eleven days as insufficient, they had five months to ask this Court or the Fifth Circuit for relief. Instead, Defendants sat on their hands, and now, five days after Murthy was handed down, Defendants move for “clarification” of a ruling that is already clear, and for the further stay of an injunction already on appeal.

But then, RFK goes on to argue (ridiculously, and wrongly) that he has much stronger arguments for standing on the basis of him being a laughably unqualified candidate for President.

The bottom line is that the Kennedy Plaintiffs have much stronger standing than did the Missouri plaintiffs, and Mr. Kennedy in particular, as a candidate for President who is still being brutally censored on major social media platforms (just as this Court predicted) , urgently requires and is entitled to vindication of his rights

But that’s not what gives you standing. What gives you standing, Bobby Jr., is actual evidence that the government coerced social media companies to shut down your accounts, and that it didn’t happen because your anti-vax nonsense violated their policies. And RFK can’t show that because it didn’t actually happen.

However, they also argue that the right place for this discussion is not in Judge Doughty’s courtroom, but rather at the Fifth Circuit. As we’ll discuss below, this was the most compelling bit to Judge Doughty who decided that this is out of his courtroom for now.

The DOJ then responded to this even more stringently, pointing out that RFK obviously has no standing, based on the Murthy ruling.

First, the Supreme Court’s decision in Missouri demonstrates that the Kennedy Plaintiffs lack standing to obtain a preliminary injunction. The Kennedy Plaintiffs stated that they “do not rest their claims on censorship of their own speech. Rather, Plaintiffs have brought this case as (and on behalf of) social media users, whose right to an uncensored public square is being systematically violated.” Dkt. 20 at 2.1 And this is the sole basis for standing that this Court found for Plaintiff Sampognaro, who “submitted no direct evidence of content suppression.” Dkt. 38 at 11. But the Supreme Court rejected this “startlingly broad” theory, “as it would grant all socialmedia users the right to sue over someone else’s censorship—at least so long as they claim an interest in that person’s speech.” Missouri, 2024 WL 3165801, at 16. And the Court held that such a theory fails to establish an Article III injury absent “any specific instance of content moderation” of a third-party to whom Plaintiff had a “concrete, specific connection,” “that caused [plaintiff] identifiable harm,” id. at 16-17. Plaintiffs fail to supply any such example.

Nor can the Kennedy Plaintiffs rely on a direct censorship theory of standing following Missouri because they have failed to show any future injury that is traceable to the government conduct they seek to enjoin—much less any future injury that is traceable to each of the governmental Defendants covered by the preliminary injunction. Id. at 7-8; see id. at 9 (“‘[P]laintiffs must demonstrate standing for each claim that they press’ against each defendant, ‘and for each form of relief that they seek.’”) (citation omitted). In Missouri, the Supreme Court explained that “[t]he primary weakness in” the plaintiffs’ reliance on “past restrictions” of their content by social-media platforms is that this Court made no “specific causation findings with respect to any discrete instance of content moderation”—in other words, no findings that any act of content moderation was attributable to actions by Defendants (much less a particular Defendant) as opposed to the third-party platforms’ exercise of their independent discretion. Id. at *8. The Kennedy Plaintiffs motion for a preliminary injunction, which “submit[s] no new evidence,” Dkt. 6-1 at 1, did not rectify that deficiency.

Furthermore:

Kennedy adduced no evidence establishing that any social-media company’s action against his accounts can be attributed to the actions of a Defendant. In fact, the record evidence is to the contrary: Facebook explained that it removed pages and accounts linked to the “[D]isinformation [D]ozen” “for violating [Facebook’s] policies,” and noted that it was not imposing a complete ban because “the remaining accounts associated with these individuals [were] not posting content that [broke Facebook’s] rules.” Missouri, Dkt. 10-1, Ex. 37 at 1. That suggests the relevant actions reflected the platform’s own decisions, not any governmental action.

The DOJ then also points to the recent Vullo decision from the Supreme Court, which reinforced the standards from Bantam Books in deciding whether or not a government official has coerced a third party to censor someone. The DOJ says that there’s no way RFK can meet the standards set forth in that decision:

As the Supreme Court recently emphasized in a decision issued after the Kennedy preliminary injunction, it is perfectly “permissible” for the government to “attempt[] to persuade” a private party not to disseminate speech, National Rifle Association, 602 U.S. at 188, so even a showing that platforms would not have taken content-moderation actions against plaintiffs’ speech but for the government’s actions would not suffice to show that those actions violated the First Amendment. Rather, the relevant question is whether the government’s “conduct … , viewed in context, could be reasonably understood to convey a threat of adverse government action in order to punish or suppress the plaintiff’s speech.”

The Kennedy Plaintiffs are unlikely to be able to demonstrate on the merits that the government coerced the platforms to act given the difficulties identified by the Supreme Court in even establishing that the government’s actions influenced the platforms. See Missouri, 2024 WL 3165801, at *13 n.8 (“acknowledging the real possibility that Facebook acted independently in suppressing [the plaintiff’s] content”). Accordingly, the injunction should be dissolved

The DOJ also points out that Doughty should stay the injunction if only because the issue is going to have to be dealt with by the Fifth Circuit anyway, and it’s standard practice to stay such an injunction until an appeal is decided. Also, they point out that if the Kennedy injunction goes into effect, it will bar all sorts of communications that the Supreme Court in Murthy said were perfectly normal, reasonable communications between government officials and private companies.

Because the universal preliminary injunction here is identical to the injunction in Missouri, it also will inflict exactly the same harms that the Supreme Court found sufficient to issue a stay in that case

But… the very next day, Judge Doughty basically wiped his hands of the issue, saying that the case is out of his court, and if there’s an issue they should take it up with the Fifth Circuit:

This Court lacks jurisdiction to address Defendants’ request. Generally, a notice of appeal divests the district court of jurisdiction over the judgment or order that is the subject of the appeal. Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter v. Cedar Point Oil Co., Inc., 73 F.3d 546, 578 (5th Cir. 1996). The Court in Sierra Club noted that Fed. R. Civ. P. Rule 62(d) provides an exception to this rule when an appeal is taken from an interlocutory or final judgment granting, dissolving or denying an injunction where the district court may suspend, modify, restore, or grant an injunction during the pendency of the appeal upon such terms as to bond or otherwise as it considers proper for the security of the rights of the adverse party. Id. The court in Sierra Club further noted that the authority granted by Rule 62(c) does not extend to the dissolution of an injunction and is limited to maintaining the status quo.

But wouldn’t maintaining the status quo at least mean maintaining the stay that blocks the injunction from going into effect? He’s doing the reverse of “maintaining the status quo” by apparently letting his original injunction go into effect. Which means, in theory, that the government is yet again barred from talking to social media companies even as the Supreme Court just said that was stupid.

And thus… it seems that the DOJ is likely to make these arguments again before the Fifth Circuit, which is where logic and common sense go to die.

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