January 03, 2024

By The Executive Board

On 26 December 2023, the Coalition for Independent Technology Research (CITR) filed an amicus brief in Murthy v. Missouri, a case before the US Supreme Court concerning the US government’s ability to communicate with independent researchers and social media platforms about content moderation. This case was originally brought forward in May 2022 (known then as Missouri v. Biden) by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, who accused federal officials of pressuring social media companies to censor conservative content on social media in violation of the First Amendment. 

Though the lawsuit was filed against the federal government, it implicated several independent researchers and falsely characterized non-partisan, public-interest research partnerships as censorship tools of the state. This resulted in a district court judge handing down an unprecedented preliminary injunction in July 2023 which barred the federal government, independent researchers and social media companies from communicating with one another about content moderation. The injunction was later narrowed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the case will now be reviewed by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s decision (expected in June 2024) could impact the very foundation of independent research by shaping how independent researchers interact with both the government and social media platforms.

CITR’s brief, filed in support of the Petitioners, explains the importance of protecting the rights of independent researchers to study the societal impacts of digital technologies and to share their findings with the public, including the government and social media companies. It provides several examples of why independent research is instrumental for understanding and addressing complex societal issues, including misinformation, election integrity and public health. Specifically, it argues that: 

  1. The First Amendment guarantees independent researchers the right to seek information from government officials and social media companies in the course of their research, and to offer recommendations and expertise based on their findings. This right is fundamental to ensuring that the public has access to reliable information about the emerging societal impacts of technology and for effective policy-making in this realm.
  2. An affirmation of the Court of Appeals’ ruling on what constitutes “state action” would significantly hinder the ability of researchers to conduct essential work in the public interest. This would discourage researchers from sharing their expertise with both government and private parties for fear that they could be mischaracterized as “intermediaries” of the state, thus exposing them to burdensome litigation and legislative intervention.

Unfortunately, these impacts are not merely hypothetical. News reports have documented how communication between the government, independent researchers and social media companies about foreign influence campaigns have already stalled as a result of the injunction. Numerous other lawsuits and congressional inquiries have targeted independent researchers doing critical public-interest work.

Independent research is vital to understanding the effects of concentrated power—whether in government or private companies—on public discourse. CITR urges the Court to preserve the First Amendment rights of researchers to study, share and advise the public on this and other emerging impacts of technology. 

Read the Coalition’s brief here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/23/23-411/294246/20231226141149443_23-411tsacTheCoalitionForIndependentTechnologyResearch.pdf

 

About CITR: The Coalition is a fiscally sponsored project of Aspiration, a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization. This brief was written by Paul Safier and Seth Berlin at Ballard Spahr. In addition to contributions from CITR’s members, the preparation of this brief was funded in part by the Tech Justice Law Project.