Pressuring the press is legal: But don’t use government power to compel


On grounds that the states bringing the case lacked standing, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed the claim that the Biden administration bullied social media companies into removing content that government considered dangerous. It was a sensible ruling — but the court could’ve and should’ve gone further and rejected the complaint on the merits.

Government officials are allowed to jawbone reporters, editorial boards or social media companies to promote or even silence certain opinions as long as they’re not explicitly or implicitly threatening to punish them with government power if they defy them.


As you might’ve guessed, we speak from experience. We’ve been on the receiving end of many a governor or mayor or federal official steamed about something we published or didn’t publish. Sometimes the complaint is shallow and partisan and self-serving, sometimes it’s rooted in an important public policy disagreement. Sometimes the public official is polite, sometimes not so much.

Regardless, getting criticized comes with the territory of being in a position of public power: That’s true of the people we elect, and it’s true of those who guide the news media, too.

Under the First Amendment to the Constitution, problems only arise if and when government threatens, say, to sic the police or the Federal Trade Commission on a speaker simply because of what he or she has said, or to yank a tax credit or a government contract.

That’s not what the case before the high court was about. It was primarily about whether the Biden administration was within its own free speech rights to urge the people who run X, Facebook and the like to take down posts featuring misinformation about vaccines, the 2020 election and the like.

Nobody on the public payroll said “nice little company, a shame if something happened to it”: They simply expressed, often forcefully, the belief that misinformation can be corrosive to democracy or public health — which, ahem, it is.

It’s wholly legitimate in the course of a pandemic, when millions of lives are on the line, for the government to push back strongly against those who spread messages that pollute public trust in vaccines or spread baseless conspiracies that increase the likelihood that a disease will more freely spread. Indeed, it’s responsible. Where the right-wing sees a conspiracy, we see a government with strong beliefs that wants social media policies to fairly implement policies that in many cases they’ve already embraced.

Nor should the irony be lost on us: A case challenging the Biden administration on these terms made it all the way to the Supreme Court, when during the Trump administration the bully in chief was openly calling the news media enemies of the people for daring to report things that he disagreed with.

If and when the Biden administration or any other administration demands that a social media company silence an account or else face the federal government’s wrath, that’ll be a very different case — and we will almost surely side with whoever’s on the receiving end.

But a tongue-lashing is not a public policy consequence.